Monday, May 30, 2005

American power and the democracy movement 

There is no denying that the democratic reforms in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, Ukraine, Georgia and even Egypt are remarkable and wonderful. The question is, why have they occurred? Like so much else in American and now global politics, supporters of the Bush administration have tended to attribute much if not all of this progress to the example of the Iraq war and subsequent elections, while critics have claimed that these reforms would have occurred regardless. For example, Adam Shatz wrote in the Los Angeles Times a couple of months ago that the American invasion of Iraq was counterproductive:
If anything, the war was a gift to the jihadists. And to the extent that the Middle East has moved toward democracy, it's as much in spite of American pressure as because of it.

It has seemed to me that both explanations were needlessly reductionist. How can it be that the Iraq war and its example could be responsible for so much (in the pro-Bush version) or be so meaningless (in the anti-Bush conception)? The answer, I think, is that the example of Iraq is not the cause of these positive changes that have occurred, but it is the product of the same American foreign policy that has also had an enormous influence in these other places.

Imagine how pleased I was, therefore, to read Lawrence F. Kaplan's essential article in the current issue of The New Republic (June 6 & 13, 2005), unfortunately available online only by subscription. Kaplan writes it thusly:
Both arguments reflect what Georgetown University's Robert Lieber calls a reductio ad Iraqum, in which every accomplishment or setback of U.S. foreign policy traces back to Iraq. Neither version of events fares well under scrutiny. When democracy blossums in several different places at once in a region whose political culture hasn't budged in 60 years, it's illogical to credit internal forces alone. At the same time, crediting the inspirational effect of Iraq's elections with events in places as far-flung as Ukraine and Egypt goes too far -- and, in slighting the U.S. role as an agent of democracy in every one of them, not far enough.

Each camp approaches the events of this spring from a different direction, but both end up in the same place: repeating the claim that "people power," triggered either by unique circumstances or the example of Iraq, accounts for the democratic wave sweeping over the Middle East and Central Asia, and that it alone can accomplish the ends of U.S. foreign policy in the region. What neither mentions is that, absent direct U.S. intervention, not one of these movements would have succeeded. This holds true in Egypt, Ukraine, Georgia, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan, and wherever else democracy has gained a foothold since the invasion of Iraq. Has that invasion changed the world directly? Maybe. Maybe not. What we do know is that it changed the orientation of U.S. foreign policy. And that is changing the world.

Kaplan, I believe, captures the point perfectly. Whatever the original rationale for the war, the Bush administration's commitment to free and fair elections in Iraq and the determined response of the Iraqi people has turned the United States into the leading champion for democracy in many places beyond Iraq. This is probably as much a function of bureaucratic dynamic as preconceived grand strategy. Having argued that democratic elections were the antidote to jihad in Iraq, one could almost see the Bush administration becoming captured by its own argument and applying it suddenly and dramatically all over the world. If, after all, democracy is the solution to Islamic fascism in Iraq, why shouldn't it be everywhere else?*

In any case, Kaplan goes on to detail how and why American policy is fostering democratic movements elsewhere.
In Lebanon, popular outrage at the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on February 14 put thousands of demonstrators in the streets, launching the Cedar Revolution. But it was the United States -- joined this time by France -- that translated outrage into concrete results... What resulted was, in the words of U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larson, a "unique, remarkable, and broad consensus" at the Security Council that the Syrians must withdraw before Lebanon's upcoming elections -- a U.S.-led consensus that Syrian officials themselves credit for their retreat...

The U.S. involvement in last December's Orange Revolution in Ukraine followed exactly the model of its involvement in 2003's Rose Revolution in Georgia, where Washington subsidized a democratic movement from within and pressured an undemocratic regime from without. Over the past two years, the United States has poured roughly $65 million in democracy aid into Ukraine -- funding, among other things, the exit poll showing that pro-Kremlin candidate Prime Minister Victor Yanukovich had lost the presidential election he claimed to have won last year, as well as training sessions for the judges who dismissed the outcome...

The least publicized example of U.S. involvement is Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution. There, in a country most Americans have never heard of -- but home to a vital U.S. airbase -- Washington flexed its muscle from the back of a truck. As part of his campaign against political dissent on the even of parliamentary elections in February, President Askar Akayev cut off power to a U.S.-funded printing press -- on which opposition newspapers calling for his ouster depended. Overnight, the U.S. Embassy trucked over generators to restart the presses, which, via articles detailing electoral fraud and growing popular unrest, would soon engineer Akayev's downfall. The highest per capita recipient of U.S. aid in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan was already home to an assortment of U.S.-funded TV and radio programs and, most important, a U.S. Embassy unusually committed to promoting democracy -- so much so that Akayev's government forged documents purporting to show it plotting his demise. As opposition leader Edil Baisilov told the Associated Press after Akayev fled the country in March, "It would have been absolutely impossible for this to have happened without [U.S.] help."

Kaplan also discusses the case of Egypt, reminding us of Secretary Rice's decisive expression of "displeasure."

Kaplan concludes that "[t]here is a lesson here, and a reminder, for a nation chastised by the war in Iraq: When it comes to democratization, either the decisive push will come from Washington or it may not come at all."

In any case, if this formulation is correct -- that the United States is systematically destabilizing authoritarian regimes in order to "drain the swamp" that breeds jihadism and otherwise advance American security -- how should we consider the Iraq war in this framework? Proponents of the war might argue that it is but one example of American support for status quo-busting democracy, and in addition to Afghanistan the only example of armed intervention. Principled opponents of the war would argue that the United States should have supported democratic movements on its own initiative, rather than having to have been boxed into that position as a consequence of its counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, and that American support for democracy would be far more popular in most of the world if the United States had not invaded in the first place. The response, of course, is that American coercion would not have been nearly as credible were it not for our demonstrated willingness to go to war. While this last argument is one that I strongly agree with, there is no doubting that historians will argue its validity for at least two generations.

Finally, there will be -- and already is -- a lively debate in the Arab world about the consequences of American policy, and a derivative argument in the West about the "lively debate" in the Arab world. Kaplan cites numerous examples of Arab and Muslim politicians and activists who credit George Bush with the progress that has already been made, but for every supporter there are many more who are baffled by this application of American power. See, for example, this cartoon, published yesterday:

Isreali soldier blames the United States

According to the unofficial TigerHawk advisor on such matters, the signs call for the withdrawal of Israel from the occupied territories. The Israeli soldier is saying that all of this democracy belongs to the American, the message being that if you let the Arab peoples say what they really think, then they will stand in opposition to Israel and the American connection to it.

At first blush, this looks like an extremely anti-American cartoon. After all, it assumes the unbreakable linkage between the hated Israelis and the United States. But does it not also implicitly credit the United States for promoting reforms that will advance Arab democracy? Why else would the Israeli soldier be blaming the American soldier for all this democracy? In the cartoonist's vision, America might well be responsible for the democratic reforms in the Arab world, but is too stupid to realize that it has unleashed forces that will rise up against its ally, Israel.

Perhaps. But stupid is as stupid does. The United States -- and its allies with the vision to support popular movements in the Arab world -- are betting that Arabs with a stake in their future and power to throw out their own governments will realize that they have more to live for than can be accomplished by detonating a bomb belt on a crowded bus.
*I'm well aware that President Bush and others raised the "democracy rationale" before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. It is also the case, though, that the democracy rationale has assumed a much greater significance since then. This is not, as cynics suggest, because the WMD rationale failed. Rather, it is because both the United States and Ayatollah al-Sistani realized that forceful advocacy for democracy was the necessary response to Sunni intransigence. Forced, then, to make the case for democracy in Iraq, the Bush administration became much more comfortable -- and persuasive -- arguing that it was a plausible solution in other contexts.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon May 30, 09:37:00 PM:

The US allowed a movement waiting to take wing to come forth. We were not the reason, just the catalyst. But anyone who doubts our critical role should face the fact none of this would have happened if the Taliban ruled Afghanistan and Saddam was in power in Iraq. At least those be honest with themselves.  

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