Overselling Democracy

Overselling Democracy

Many experts are questioning whether democracy will enhance or hurt America's interests in the Middle East.

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3m 8sec

THE SOURCES: “The Freedom Crusade” by David C. Hendrickson and Robert W. Tucker, in The National Interest (Fall 2005), 1615 L St., N.W., Ste. 1230, Washington, D.C. 20036; “Can Democracy Stop Terrorism?” by F. Gregory Gause III, in Foreign Affairs (Sept.–Oct. 2005), 58 E. 68th St., New York, N.Y. 10021.

Invoking the Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln, President George W. Bush declared in his second inaugural address last January that “America’s vital interests and deepest beliefs are now one,” and that henceforth the United States would “seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” Bush did not rule out the use of force to achieve this goal.

Far from fulfilling the vision of America’s Founders, the Bush administration’s campaign to promote democracy in the Middle East and the rest of the globe is, rather, at odds with it, these authors argue. Even worse, the democracy campaign runs counter to the United States’ national security interests.

For the Founders, the question of using force to revolutionize foreign governments arose early on, as a result of the French Revolution, according to Hendrickson, a political scientist at Colorado College, and Tucker, an emeritus professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University. The French Convention in 1792 decreed that “it will accord fraternity and assistance to all peoples who shall wish to recover their liberty.” To Alexander Hamilton, this was “little short of a declaration of War against all nations, having princes and privileged classes,” and was equally repugnant “to the general rights of Nations [and] to the true principles of liberty.” Even Thomas Jefferson, who strongly sympathized with the French Revolution, said that the French should not force liberty on their neighbors.

Moreover, making the end of tyranny the declared aim of U.S. foreign policy turns all tyrannical regimes into enemies—which makes it harder to negotiate with them, as the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability illustrates. If the Bush doctrine were to be applied consistently, even friendly regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan would be pressed to democratize. There is little sign that the administration actually intends to press very hard.

Promoting democracy in the Middle East, Bush maintained last March, will “change the conditions that give rise to extremism and terror.” Under dictatorships, “responsible opposition cannot develop, and dissent is driven underground and toward the extreme.”

But there’s “no solid empirical evidence for a strong link between democracy, or any other regime type, and terrorism,” asserts Gause, a political scientist who directs the University of Vermont’s Middle East studies program. During the 1970s and 1980s, various terrorist organizations arose in democratic countries, including the Red Brigades in Italy, the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Ireland and the United Kingdom, and the Baader-Meinhof Gang in West Germany. One study found that most terrorist incidents in the 1980s were committed in democracies, generally by their own citizens. There’s no reason to think that Al Qaeda would be unable to recruit followers under democratic Arab governments—especially if those governments fashioned policies in tune with American interests or made peace with Israel.

In reality, though, “Washington probably would not like the governments Arab democracy would produce,” Gause says. Rather than push for free elections to be held soon in the Arab world, concludes Gause, the United States should encourage the growth of “secular, nationalist, and liberal political organizations that could compete on an equal footing with Islamist parties.”

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