Rescuing Democracy Promotion From Cynics

Former Bush administration “democracy czar” Elliott Abrams thinks that “The revolt in Tunisia, the gigantic wave of demonstrations in Egypt and the more recent marches in Yemen all make clear that Bush had it right”:

In November 2003, President George W. Bush laid out this question:

“Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom and never even have a choice in the matter?”

The massive and violent demonstrations underway in Egypt, the smaller ones in Jordan and Yemen, and the recent revolt in Tunisia that inspired those events, have affirmed that the answer is no and is exploding, once and for all, the myth of Arab exceptionalism. Arab nations, too, yearn to throw off the secret police, to read a newspaper that the Ministry of Information has not censored and to vote in free elections.

Abrams offers no examples of anyone who claimed that Arab nations don’t yearn to throw off the secret police, don’t want to read a newspaper that the Ministry of Information has not censored and don’t want to vote in free elections, which is the sort of thing might one might do if one was trying to disprove an argument someone has actually made.

But, of course, no one claimed any of those things. What Bush’s critics did say was that promoting democracy in the Middle East through invasion and occupation of Middle Eastern countries was a bad idea. Those critics were, of course, correct. Bush’s democracy agenda was a huge failure for a number of reasons, but not least because it featured as its main advertisement the smoking ruins and charred bodies of Iraq. There was also the Bush administration’s tendency to pull the plug when it became obvious that democracy might mean the political victory of people the U.S. didn’t like, as happened in Egypt. Or, as in Gaza, to try to reverse the outcome through a coup, a disaster in which Abrams himself played a key role.

These sorts of lame attempts at retroactive self-vindication (along with constantly trying to scare Israelis about Obama) have been Abrams’ main occupation since leaving Bush’s employ. For Abrams, there’s really no event that occurs anywhere in the world that can’t be spun as evidence of how awful Obama is.

For example, last week, Abrams suggested that Hezbollah’s steadily increasing power in Lebanon, most recently evidenced by their insistence on naming the new prime minister, “reflects the continuing reduction in American sway in the region, and especially the ‘engagement’ with Syria”:

The last straw may have been the decision to send an ambassador to Syria by recess appointment despite the Senate’s unwillingness to confirm the Administration’s candidate. That foolish gesture must have indicated to the Syrians and to Hizballah that the Administration had learned nothing from two years of insults and rebuffs by Damascus.

It should be obvious that the idea that Obama’s sending an ambassador to Syria triggered Hezbollah’s takeover of the Lebanese government is ridiculous on its face, but then, that’s how neocons think: Talking to one’s adversaries is itself a form of appeasement.

Consider, for comparison’s sake, that the Bush administration withdrew the U.S. ambassador after the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005, in which Syria was implicated, and spent the next three years scolding the Syrians and denying them the honor of our diplomacy. This cunning strategy resulted in… Syria-backed Hezbollah increasing its power in Lebanon for three years. It was not, in any sense, a successful approach. But, of course, in the reality neocons create for themselves, bad things only ever result from not taking a hard line.

Consider also that the Tunisian government was a close ally in the Bush administration’s war on terror. The State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), one of the Bush administration’s key democracy initiatives, (headed by Liz Cheney, by the way, which I’ve heard made it lots of fun for MEPI officials to advocate against nepotism) had its regional office there.

Now here’s what Abrams had to say about the recent demonstrations:

The revolt in Tunisia has thrown both that nation’s dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and the Obama administration’s democracy-promotion policy onto the ash heap of history. The revolt undermined — indeed, destroyed — two years of effort in Washington to move toward a policy of “engagement” with hostile and repressive regimes.

The price for this policy has been paid by men and women from China to Russia to Iran to Egypt to Venezuela, who had expected a louder voice and a firmer helping hand from the United States. Now, watching the Tunisians try to move from a rapacious dictatorship to a stable democratic system, the president should say that in Tunisia, and everywhere else, we will side with those working to build democracies.

Again, this is almost too silly to merit a response, though I would note that if this sort of critique came from the left it would probably be attacked by conservatives as “blaming America.”

Specifically in regard to Iran, however, I’d suggest that if Abrams doesn’t like the impact that Obama’s engagement policy has had there, he should try talking to actual Iranians like Shirin Ebadi and Akbar Ganji, both of whom credit Obama’s shift in tone away from Bush’s belligerence with helping to create political space in Iran.

But that’s beside the point, because obviously Abrams’ goal here isn’t to tell the truth, it’s to try and score points, which is neatly emblematic of the Bush administration’s instrumental approach to democracy promotion itself. It was simply something to threaten regimes with to get them to do what we want, something nice to talk about while we go about imposing our will on everyone. This, of course, ends up discrediting the U.S. and devaluing the democratic brand, which is why, as I wrote yesterday, it’s desperately important that the democracy agenda be taken up by progressives and others who actually support it, and not left to the cynics.