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Chris Weigant

Chris Weigant

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Democracy's Drawback

Posted: 01/31/11 06:19 PM ET

America is a strong supporter of democracy worldwide. Except, of course, when we aren't. That piece of doublethink has been at the center of American foreign policy pretty much since World War II, and it is the heart of the conundrum we now find ourselves in regards to what is happening in Egypt and other countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Because we're conceptually all in favor of democracy -- right up until the "wrong" person or group wins an election. According to our definition of "wrong," of course. This is the key drawback to democracy (and American support of democracy in the rest of the world) -- sometimes the "wrong" people win.

At heart of this dichotomy is the realpolitik fact that America promotes its own ideals and values, while simultaneously looking out for its own national interests. When the two conflict, we almost always choose our national interests (as we see them at the time) over our lofty ideals. Sometimes this leads to disaster, sometimes it leads to stability, and sometimes it leads to an American president pulled in two different directions -- as President Obama is right now over the Egyptian protests.

During the Cold War, American foreign policy was a pretty black-or-white affair. If a country's leaders were against communism, then they were OK with us -- no matter what else they did to their citizens or their regions of the world. Anti-communism was the overriding acid test for whether countries would garner our support or not. Democracy was a distant second, in terms of who we supported on the world stage. This led us to back dictators, despots, and autocrats (take your choice) across the globe -- in Central and South America, in Africa, and in the Far East. As long as a strongman denounced communism with sufficient fervor, we turned an enormous blind eye to pretty much anything the strongman did to crush his own people to stay in power. Examples of this abound throughout the past 65 years of history. The flip side to this coin was just as bad, too -- if a country held a fair and free election, and the voters of that country elected someone we didn't like, then we denounced the country (or, sometimes, even worked to overthrow the freely-elected government, either overtly or covertly).

To put it quite bluntly, when American values conflicted with American national interests, our national interests always trumped our values. This mostly continues today, although the communism/anti-communism divide is largely a thing of the past. Today's world is more complex and nuanced, but this hasn't changed our basic foreign policy equation much, if at all.

The classic example of this is a quote attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt. When his secretary of state supposedly pointed out (these quotes are unverified, at best) that one of the dictators we were supporting wasn't exactly a nice man ("Somoza's a bastard!"), F.D.R. was said to have responded with: "Yes, but he's our bastard."

That is exactly the problem Obama now faces. Sure, Mubarak may be a bastard, but the problem is that he's our bastard. Which makes calling for his ouster rather touchy. Denounce Mubarak too forcefully, and it becomes obvious that we've been propping this bastard up for three decades. Show too much support for him right now, and it becomes obvious that all that fancy talk about how we "support democracy" is nothing more than window dressing, when the rubber meets the road.

American conceptual support for democracy has always had its limits, because of democracy's inherent drawbacks. American politicians (of both parties) love to give flowery speeches extolling our supposedly unlimited support for the democratic form of government, but this is belied by the facts on the ground in plenty of places in today's world. We still support all kinds of dictatorial leaders around the globe. We conveniently "look the other way" when some of these leaders hold sham "elections" whose results are questionable, at best -- and downright laughable, at the worst. "Stability" still trumps "democracy" in our core foreign policy in plenty of countries. Sometimes, as with Egypt, this is because the policy is inherited and ongoing. Sometimes, as with Afghanistan, this is because we don't really see any better options to supporting the current leader (even if his recent election was closer to the "laughable" side of that scale than not). And sometimes, as with countries who elect Islamist groups (that we label "terrorist organizations"), we completely deny or ignore the results of democratic elections because we just flat-out don't like who won.

This is the worry, currently, when it comes to Egypt. If we support a pro-democracy movement, what happens if they elect someone (or some party) into power that we don't like? Our support of an election is going to be seen as awfully hypocritical if we refuse to deal with the legitimate victor of such an election. But supporting the pro-democracy movement exposes a different type of American hypocrisy as well, because we have been such a staunch support of Mubarak up until this point.

American foreign policy spokespeople love to talk pie-in-the-sky American values, when addressing this region of the world. People like George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton have given plenty of speeches over there which touch on our supposed support for free speech, free elections, human rights, women's rights, and secular governments. At the same time these speeches are given, we shovel billions of dollars in military aid to leaders who deny all of these things to their people. Egypt is so good at torturing prisoners that we de facto subcontracted some of this work out to them with our own prisoners. How, exactly, do we square that uncomfortable fact with all of our pretty speeches about human rights?

For the most part, we don't. The American public largely follows our government's lead in "looking the other way" on such touchy issues. It's so much more comforting to do so. But the people living in the region are not so adept at this American species of doublethink. They see the tangible results of American foreign policy, from the missile casings to the tear gas canisters that are stamped "Made in America." They judge us much more concretely on what we do, as opposed to what our leaders say. They watch as we cozy up to leaders of countries that we have a strategic military need for (and hand them billions of dollars in military aid), without a single thought of how these leaders treat their own people. Such things get swept under the "it's just their own domestic problem" rug, as we praise them for "standing with us in the war on terrorism."

It gets even trickier when you consider our history and the unintended effects of our support in the region. President Obama got a lot of heat politically for not coming out and embracing the street demonstrations in Iran, a while back. But the people who criticized him at the time were guilty themselves of oversimplification, because due to our history of interjecting ourselves in Iran's politics (including a C.I.A.-led coup which installed the Shah decades ago), if America had offered its full support of the Iranian street movement, it would have been a death knell for that same movement -- because the entire region would have read it as "America's puppets in Iran trying to achieve America's goal of regime change." Rather than allow the democracy movement to be painted as a stooge for us, Obama had to hold back in his support. His hands were tied by our own history -- not just of previous regime change, but of decades of support for a strongman who just happened to be "our bastard." The American public was barely aware of these nuances, but you can be sure the people in the region were fully cognizant of what Obama's outspoken support for the movement would have meant.

All of the pros and cons of supporting the Egyptian people's uprising are currently being weighed in Washington by the Obama administration. Supporting democracy -- in the abstract -- is always easier than supporting a real, live revolt in the streets. The overarching question on everyone's mind at the State Department is: "Will supporting full democracy for Egypt change our relationship to them, to Israel, and to the entire region -- and if so, for the better, or for the worse?" Unfortunately, this is an unanswerable question (unless we participate in rigging the election itself, which shouldn't be seen as a realistic option). There are too many unknowns to answer this at this point in time.

Even in Iraq -- where we overtly imposed a democratic form of government on the country by force -- the jury is still out on whether it's going to turn out to be a good thing for us or not. The recent return of Muqtada Al Sadr (who is never referenced in the American press without his proper media-friendly label: "Anti-American Cleric"), who now controls a major bloc of votes in their parliament, shows how it is still an open question as to what the U.S.-Iraqi relationship is going to look like a few years down the road. We may eventually wind up denouncing a freely-elected government in a country where we set up the democratic forms of government in the first place. Such irony may be mostly lost on the American public -- but it is definitely not ignored in the region itself.

Because, as always, American interests (be they economic, military, or other) trump American values and ideals. We support democracy and democracy movements around the world right up to the point where they elect the "wrong" people. From that point on, the demonizing begins and all talk of the wonders of "democracy" fades quickly.

So far, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seem to be doing a pretty good job of walking the tightrope on Egypt. Obama and Clinton seem to be making the right moves -- working feverishly behind the scenes to get Mubarak out of power, working behind the scenes with the military to insure stability in our two countries' military relationship during whatever transition time takes place, and working to avoid outright chaos for the Egyptian people. Clinton appeared on every Sunday political show possible yesterday, projecting a message that was couched in diplomatic terms, but was still pretty clear -- America wants an orderly transition of power, supports the concept of non-violence, and is not going to dictate to the Egyptian people what form of government they should have. She didn't explicitly call for Mubarak to step down, but she did everything but -- making it clear to anyone who can read between the lines that we're now telling him to pack his bags and book his flight out of the country. The movement in the street is not going to accept anything less, and Clinton had several supportive things to say about the protest movement and their goals -- again, not giving full-throated support to the movement against Mubarak, but doing everything but offer such explicit support. She quite rightly pointed out that Mubarak has been a United States ally for Mubarak's entire term, and that we want a close relationship between our countries to continue after he is gone.

All in all, it's a tough needle to thread. Republicans, for the most part, have offered support for (or, at the least, haven't denounced) Obama's diplomatic efforts. Cries for Obama to do more (or, even, "less") than he is doing currently are mostly muted and from groups with specific interests of their own.

While appealing for calm and an orderly transition of power is pretty standard diplomatic fare, openly supporting full democratic rights for Egyptians is a gamble. If we openly get behind the democracy movement and fully support a truly free and fair election in Egypt (one in which opposition party members aren't arrested, jailed, and thrown off the ballot, for instance) -- then we're going to have to live with the results of that election, even if some of the "wrong" people get elected.

That's what supporting democracy is all about. It's always a gamble. Which is why supporting a dictator who consistently sides with the U.S. is so much easier to do -- and why we continue to do so in many parts of the world today. Strategic national interests have always been more important than ideological purity of values when it comes to American foreign policy.

Currently, fans of George W. Bush are cheerleading that "Bush was right" on the Middle East, and that the dominoes are falling precisely as he predicted they would after invading Iraq. Democracy, in this storyline, is spreading like wildfire across the region, which is cause for celebration. These will be exactly the same people who will denounce any elected government in any of these countries who is deemed the "wrong" winner of an election. If the people of any country in the region wind up electing an "Islamist" government, or a "puppet of Iran" even, then look for demonizations from the same people who are cheering today's developments.

Because, whether we like it or not, this is what democracy truly means. A country elects a leader that the people of that country want -- and not a leader that some other country prefers. This, when it comes to American foreign policy, is the big drawback to supporting worldwide democracy -- because people in the rest of the world can't be counted on to elect the leaders America would prefer. But that is as it should be, to anyone who truly supports democracy.

 

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