On Democracy Promotion, Change Begins with Liberals

George Bush's rhetoric and policies over the past eight years have led many liberals to grow weary of an America that uses its power and leverage to promote democracy in the world. However, while Bush's militaristic approach has been deeply misguided and flawed, on the issue of democracy promotion as a whole, most liberals stand on the wrong side of history as their arguments falter in the face of reason.

At the core of the desire to change from the America that promotes democracy, many rely on some egalitarian notion that all systems of government are created equal and no single system is "best" for all societies. It is true that the United States has no moral or legal right to impose its desired type of government or leader on the people in other countries. But Democracy is not a system of government in the sense that communism or capitalism is. Communism, capitalism, socialism and all the shades in between are economic models that establish how a country should direct and manage its human and materials resources. Democracy, however, is the method through which people in a country decide what kind of government they wish to have.

When we have elections in this country every four years, we are not deciding on whether or not to have a democracy and free elections. We have rather accepted democracy and elections as the superior method of selecting who our leaders should be. And our founding fathers did not adopt this system because it was culturally or religiously more appropriate for this specific country, but rather because they believed in the universality of freedom and understood that the only method of selecting leaders and governments in a free country is through democracy and elections. So it is oxymoronic for one to say that we cannot treat democracy as superior in the name of wanting to allow the people in other countries to decide for themselves what kind of leaders or government philosophies they wish to have because the only way in which they can freely and fairly select their leaders and governments for themselves is through democracy and free elections. Any other method of selecting governments that is not democracy by definition violates the equality of vote and voice that is guaranteed under democracy and is therefore a form of oppression.

Many do not argue that democracy is indeed the only universally right method of selecting leaders and governments while assuring accountability, fairness and freedom. Others rather argue that the United States has no responsibility to promote democracy in other countries, and a third group takes a more realist approach and argues that we have no interest in promoting democracy elsewhere. Some also cite the neoconservatives' pro-democracy rhetoric in justifying the war in Iraq as an example of the kind of circumstances that democracy promotion can lead to.

But none of these arguments are logically founded. As for the first argument, it is important to remember that with power comes responsibility, as the most powerful democracy in the world, the United States has the responsibility to promote democracy. But that's not the only reason; the United States is directly or indirectly responsible for causing oppression in many corners of the world, and that is what makes it responsible to use its power to promote democracy in those countries. This blogger may not have had to move to the United States from Iran at sixteen if the CIA had not worked with MI6 in 1953 to overthrow the Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, which historians unanimously agree was the main event that sparked the movement to overthrow the shah and led to the oppressive theocracy that currently rules Iran.

Also unlike the premise in the second argument, the United States indeed has a vested interest in promoting democracy. The reason is that those who most seriously threaten American interests are extremists, and extremists are the minority in every society. The vast majority of the people who live under oppressive states want the very same things that Americans do: the ability to have jobs that pay living wages and the freedom to say what they think and elect their own leaders. Sometimes American leaders align themselves with oppressive dictators like the Saudi Royal family, Musharraf and Saddam Hussein in the name of geopolitical interests. But the fact is that the reason that 15 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks of 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia was because for years, America has turned a blind eye on the Saudis' human rights violations against its citizens and particularly women that has led to an environment that is conducive to creating religious intolerance and extremists. Also if America had not supported Musharraf all of these years, it would have surely helped our image and values and may have prevented FATA in northern Pakistan from becoming a bastion for terrorists who want to hurt the United States. And Reagan made the same mistake in the 80s when he supported Saddam Hussein during the 8-year Iran-Iraq War in the name of defending America's geopolitical interest only to ruin its image among a generation of Iranians, strengthen the mullahs and have to go to war with Saddam twice later, once during the Persian Gulf war and then again a decade later to remove him from power, costing Americans thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

Political scientists and diplomats speak about idealism (the philosophy of standing up for our democratic ideals) and realism (prioritizing our geopolitical interests) as if they are opposing values; the fact is that idealism and realism go hand-in-hand because the only way for the United States to promote its long-term interests is defend its popular ideals everywhere.

And the last argument that warns us about the consequences of promoting democracy by referring to Bush's failures in Iraq is unfounded for two reasons. First, President Bush originally had no intention of promoting democracy in Iraq. It rather changed its rhetoric after the invasion and failure to find weapons of mass destruction, based on which he had built the case for war. And secondly, opposition to democracy promotion based on the Iraq War assumes that the only way for America to promote democracy and human rights is through war. There are, however, many ways to promote democracy, such as speaking up about human rights violations, attaching human rights measures to foreign aid as we do labor standards to our trade agreements and supporting civil resistance education programs. Democracy promotion through militarism does not work because democracy by definition cannot be imposed; in the vast majority of cases throughout history, the only times that democracy has survived have been when the people in a country have gone through the phases that may take time but were necessary in order to reach the required level of intellectual and social understanding of all aspects of democracy, and then they proceeded to establish democracy for themselves.

However, the United States can be an effective force in accelerating that development process through education and a foreign policy philosophy that prioritizes long-term security through respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law, rather that hypocritical pursuit of short-term interests.

When it comes to human rights, many liberals sound inconsistent. They show outrage about Darfur and Burma, but remain silent about Iran and Gaza; they get fired up about civil rights in America, but don't speak up about the fact that even today, women in Iran are forced to sit in the back of the bus and have their testimonies in a court of law count as half that of a male, even if that male is a child; and they fight vigorously for gay marriage in America, but keep silent when Ahmadinejad denies even the gays' existence in Iran. But there is one unfortunate reason for this inconsistency: over the past eight years, many liberals have allowed their resentment for the Bush administration to define who they are. They are so outraged by Bush that they make the point of opposing any decision that Bush made regardless of the merits and without giving those decisions an objective review. They get fired up about gay marriage just because Bush opposed it; they speak up about Burma because Bush did not; they keep silent about Iran because Bush acknowledged human rights violations in Iran.

Make no mistake about it; over his two terms as president, Bush took this country in the wrong direction in just about every sense, from his invasion of Iraq to his pursuit of extreme social and economic policies at home. And he was dead wrong in thinking that he could promote democracy through militarism. But liberals must not allow opposition to Bush's legacy to become an end in and of itself, keep silent or adopt their own double standard about human rights violations, getting outraged by some while dismissing others in the name of respecting "cultural differences." President Obama has the responsibility to use America's leverage to promote democracy peacefully and consistently throughout the world, but liberals also need to do their part to educate themselves and speak about oppression everywhere, not just when and where it's politically expedient.