November 07, 2003

Bush's Speech Check out this

Bush's Speech

Check out this somewhat critical WaPo analysis. I hope to have more on this soon.

UPDATE: I'm a little late to the party (wait, the party's bigger than I realized!), but wanted to put down a few comments on Bush's recent speech at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Like much of the blogosphere judging from the above links--I found the speech to be highly impressive and inspiring. You can't help but be inspired by the hugely bold and ambitious task that George Bush outlined in the speech.

Despite that, however, I'm going to focus on some of the problems I had with the speech that I haven't seen commented on in the blogosphere.

I've got three main beefs with the speech. One, per the WaPo article linked above, the noble rhetoric isn't always matched by our policy. Two, the Arab world is hugely skeptical of the President's message which will, in turn, hamper our efforts to pursue the democratization project in that region. And three, I've seen no thinking about what occurs if democratic elections, should they be held in certain countries in the region, lead to results that are contrary to the U.S. national interest.

For instance, what if extremist Islamist movements were to gain power through the ballot box? The so-called "one man, one vote, one time" issue.

Relatedly, this begs a deeper question that American commentators rarely confront--is democratization in the Middle East definitively in the U.S. national interest?

Why the "Democratic Exception"?

Let me start with the third problem I've got with the speech first. Richard Haass has spoken of a "democratic exception" that has characterized our Middle East policy over the past few decades. Put simply, while the democratization agenda typically was a major part of our diplomatic agenda in regions like Europe, Asia and Latin America--we tended to not pursue said agenda with as much alacrity in the Middle East.

Why, one wonders? Could it be that we have seen autocrats like the late Hafez Asad or Hosni Mubarak as bulwarks against the spread of Iranian style theocratic fervor in the region?

Or was the "democracy exception" partly in place because of the perennial (and often overstated) concerns about an Arab street coming to boil during major regional crises or periods of high tension with Israel?

Perhaps some U.S. policymakers prefer established leaders who can control, almost like a spigot, the anti-Israeli or anti-American vitriol that might emanate from the Arab masses?

What's my point? I'm saying we need to really question why this "democratic exception" has been a pretty pervasive part of our Middle East policymaking landscape for a good while now more thoroughly than we have to date. We have to be honest with ourselves about it and think about it comprehensively.

Relatedely, of course, we need to analyze what the neo-conservative vision of large scale attempted exportation of democracy would accomplish in terms of the specific furtherance of the American national interest in the region.

We need to be cautious to not be overly enraputured by the clarion call of democratization. Of course, it's a hugely important and noble goal. I mean, how can you disagree with sentiments that Bush enunciated like the following?

"There are, however, essential principles common to every successful society, in every culture. Successful societies limit the power of the state and the power of the military -- so that governments respond to the will of the people, and not the will of an elite. Successful societies protect freedom with the consistent and impartial rule of law, instead of selecting applying -- selectively applying the law to punish political opponents. Successful societies allow room for healthy civic institutions -- for political parties and labor unions and independent newspapers and broadcast media. Successful societies guarantee religious liberty -- the right to serve and honor God without fear of persecution. Successful societies privatize their economies, and secure the rights of property. They prohibit and punish official corruption, and invest in the health and education of their people. They recognize the rights of women. And instead of directing hatred and resentment against others, successful societies appeal to the hopes of their own people."

Cautionary Notes

Still, we have to be careful not to get too carried away by a neo-Wilsonian fervor that has observers (ultimately hyperbolically and incorrectly) like historian Eric Hobsbawm comparing today's America to societies marked by too much revolutionary fervor in the past.

I think such claims are typically wildly exagerrated, as I've blogged about before.

And yet. We need to ask some tough questions--focusing on American objectives.

Put differently, is fostering increased democracy in the Middle East always in our national interest?

If Turkey were fully run (rather than just highly influenced) by its military leaders we would have definitely had a northern front during the major combat phase in Iraq. No nettlesome parliamentary debates would have held up the deployment of U.S. troops from Turkey.

How would a fully democratic Egypt act vis-a-vis Israel? Would the Camp David accords survive the exercise of the free will of the Egyptian people? Would the chances of a military conflict with Israel be increased--particularly during periods of robust IDF activity in the Occupied Territories that lead to rage in the streets of Cairo?

Would some states perhaps vote in, per free and fair elections, Islamist movements that going forward would not allow future voting in the relevant polity? I happen to think such extremist Islamic movements are less pervasive than many commentators relay--but prior events in Algeria are worth or thought or two on that score.

Beyond all this, many countries in the Middle East don't want democracy forced down their throats by the U.S.--even the intellectual classes that hunger for increased democratization have deep misgivings on this score.

I'm not saying that the President's vision is fatally flawed because of any of the above. But I am wondering if enough people in the Administration have given such factors protracted and judicious thought.

Double Standards?

I'm not going to blog extensively about the first and second reasons I have some reservations about the speech here today given time constraints (the 'double standards' issue and the massive suspicion of our motivations in the Middle East).

But do go read the WaPo article linked above. Think about Dubya's relations with an authoritarian Musharraf or (post-Khodorkovsky) Putin.

Doesn't it appear, when a former leader is more firmly behind our goals re: the war on terror, that we will provide quite a bit of leeway regarding their democratic bona fides?

I'm not saying that such a bias is necessarily wrong. We need to be realists in terms of pursuing our national interests in what are, after all, extremely complex regions.

But such close bilateral relationships with leaders that possess strong authoritarian stripes do force us to question the extent of our devotion to the democratization project, don't they?

Put simply, we need to strive to be more consistent in our democracy exportation goals--while being careful to not appear overly messianic in our pursuit of democratization.

Let us at least proceed with a modicum of caution that, for instance, the rapid exportation of democracy might not always represent the panacea we seem to typically believe it to be.

Final Thoughts

In closing, however, let me say again that I found the President's speech moving and impressive.

Take this line:

"We've witnessed, in little over a generation, the swiftest advance of freedom in the 2,500 year story of democracy. Historians in the future will offer their own explanations for why this happened. Yet we already know some of the reasons they will cite. It is no accident that the rise of so many democracies took place in a time when the world's most influential nation was itself a democracy." [emphasis added]

Euro-sophisticates will scoff that such rhetoric represents a crude vein of American exceptionalism. But there is undeniably much truth to Bush's statement.

What the U.S. accomplished in fighting back Hitlerism and Stalinism was hugely important in creating conditions of greater freedom for literally billions of people. Who can seriously deny this intelligently and honestly today?

We might be able to pull off such a feat in the Middle East too. But it will be a highly complex, generational project.

And we need to not just make passing mention of countries like Zimbabwe, Cuba and Myanmar in a Presidential speech--even one centered on the Middle East-dealing with the theme of democratization.

It looks too much like a throw away line to make the Arab (and Persian) world feel that we are also serious about spreading democracy in countries where our interests might not be as vital.

Unless we back up such rhetoric with action--there will be an even higher degree of suspicion regarding our motives that will perhaps contribute to helping scuttle our goals of democratizing the Middle East.

Put differently, Arabs will skeptically look at the history of the American "democratic exception" in the region, while thinking about our vital interests regarding Persian Gulf security, access to oil, Israel, controlling/quashing terror movements, and wonder whose interests we are really pursuing.

And, of course, before we pursue Bush's grand vision in earnest--we need to get Iraq in order. Needless to say, that's no mean task right there. Let's maybe concentrate on that and see where we stand in a year or so before getting too excited about meta-democratization projects through entire regions.

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