Editors' introduction: The Fall 2005 issue of The National Interest included a provocative contribution from Robert W. Tucker, a founding editor of this magazine, and David C. Hendrickson. Entitled "The Freedom Crusade", this essay questioned whether making the promotion of democracy around the world a central organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy was in keeping with America's diplomatic traditions and national interests. Readers of The National Interest are well aware that there has been a vigorous debate in these pages over the "democracy question." We invited several distinguished commentators [Leslie H. Gelb, Daniel Pipes, Robert W Merry, and Joseph S. Nye, Jr.] to offer their own opinions about the points of view expressed in "The Freedom Crusade" and more generally on the relationship between democracy and U.S. interests.
Daniel Pipes's introduction: The other three responses can be found on the National Interest website.
The debate over promoting democracy is hardly a new one for Americans; indeed, the locus classicus for the ambitious argument is Joshua Muravchik's 1991 study, Exporting Democracy: Fulfilling America's Destiny, where he argues for democratization as the central theme of U.S. foreign policy. "The American president", he wrote, "should see himself not merely as custodian of the country, but as the leader of the democratic movement." This is full-bodied idealism, implying American exceptionalism and its special calling.
In contrast, the realist approach argues, along with David C. Hendrickson and Robert W. Tucker, that promoting democracy (or anything else) is neither practical nor desirable. It tends to see the United States as a more ordinary country with more limited goals. American realists share the same assumptions about foreign policy as realists everywhere else around the globe. American idealists, in contrast, point to America's unique role in the world, and therefore bear the burden of justifying their views.
A three-fold assumption undergirds the suggestion to "export democracy." First, that democracy in some fashion belongs to Americans, in the sense that virtually every country that democratizes has drawn on the American experience. Second, that democracy can indeed be exported. And finally, that non-Americans, given a choice, want democracy.
The historical record supports these three contentions, argue Muravchik and others. Democracy has been an American trait for over 200 years. Washington has indeed exported this form of government, sometimes at the point of a bayonet. And democracy's spread from its North Atlantic strongholds to eastern Europe, Latin America and much of East Asia proves its attractiveness.
Personally, I am somewhere between idealism and realism, sometimes encouraging the United States in its unique career of exporting social and political institutions (think Japan) and at other times fearful that such efforts will overextend the American reach and end badly (what I expect in Iraq). I encourage the vision of spreading American-style democracy even as I worry that the circumstances are not propitious (whereas the Japanese had been defeated in war, war liberated the Iraqis). Turning to George W. Bush's policies, the focus of the Hendrickson and Tucker article, I should begin with two observations:
The Middle East will define his presidency, and with regard to each of the region's major issues (terrorism, radical Islam, Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict and perhaps yet Iran), he has proven himself to be a radical innovator prone to reject decades-old, bipartisan policies, tossing them aside with élan and even disdain. I admire the spirit but worry about the practicalities. The vision of a free and prosperous Middle East is incontrovertible, but a characteristic American impatience wants it all done yesterday. Experience shows that full democracy requires decades of preparation, rehearsals and mistakes (look at the troubled careers of Russia and Mexico).
In all recent Middle Eastern moves toward democracy—such as elections in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt—a too-quick removal of tyranny threatens to create conditions for Islamist ideologues to take power and enduringly install their totalitarian ideology. Islamists have what it takes to win elections: the talent to develop a compelling ideology, the energy to found parties, the devotion to win supporters, the money to spend on electoral campaigns, the honesty to appeal to voters and the will to intimidate rivals. The Middle East currently suffers from a severe case of totalitarian temptation, so democracy could well bring even worse regimes than the unelected tyrants of old. Enthusiasm for the Cedar Revolution has already quickly tempered in Washington after Hizballah did well at the polls and joined a new government in Lebanon. A pro-Iranian Islamist became prime minister of Iraq, leading to the ironic situation noted by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, that, after fighting hard to keep Iran out of Iraq, "we are handing the whole country over to Iran without reason."
As for the "pothole theory of democracy"—the idea that the imperatives of governance will absorb the attention of extremists and reduce them to moderation—it has never worked. Mussolini made the trains run on time, the Soviets cleared the snow efficiently, and the Islamists can likewise do well practically, even as they nurse their ambitions.
Voting should not start the democratization process, as has been the case in the Middle East of late, but culminate it. For democracy to take root means leaving behind the bad habits of tyrannical rule and replacing them with the benign ways of civil society. This includes such difficult steps as creating voluntary institutions (political parties, lobby groups and so on), entrenching the rule of law, establishing freedom of speech, protecting minority rights, securing private property and developing the notion of a loyal opposition.
For Iraq, this tempered approach implies lowering expectations, for building democracy will likely require decades, especially because Iraqis do not accept American guidance. And so, as I have argued since early 2003, we should have accepted a democratically minded strongman. The Iraqi population has unquestionably benefited from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but remaking Iraq in the American image is the wrong standard by which to judge the coalition venture there. From the U.S. point of view, the immediate goal in Iraq is a regime that does not endanger America. Protecting themselves, not creating a better Iraq, is why taxpayers spend and soldiers fight.
The president was overly harsh in arguing, as he did in November 2003, that sixty years of "excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe." The old approach did have faults, creating problems that worsened over time, but it must not be summarily thrown out. Stability does have some virtues.
A new foreign policy calling for the gradual democratization of the region requires programmatic details, financial support and consistent execution if it is to be successful. Americans, in brief, need to learn to be patient and modest idealists.