Against Democracy

A foreign policy for the United States should pass the basic test of advancing American interests and upholding American ideals. A foreign policy doctrine -- that is, the subordination of particular foreign-policy options to the application of a general principle -- must be such that the benefits to U.S. interests and ideals clearly overwhelm any consequences that the implementation of such a worldview entails. And a liberal foreign policy or foreign policy doctrine must meet further tests: the policy or doctrine must uphold liberal ideals; and meeting the first test must not consequently jeopardize the broader national interest in whose name liberalism seeks to act.

This is the problem with democracy. Or, to put it another way, it's the problem with making democracy promotion the lodestar of liberal foreign policy.

Last week on The American Prospect Online, Shadi Hamid argued that "a foreign policy that puts democracy promotion at its center is the only way to secure our strategic interests, stay true to our ideals, and keep America safe." His argument was as sincere as it was misguided. As with much talk about democracy promotion, it mistook the world that American liberals would like to live in for the actual one that American liberals must confront. Hamid conflates a liberalism of good intentions with a liberalism of good results. But American liberals have a responsibility when acting abroad to advance a liberalism of good results -- good for America, and good for liberalism.

The heart of Hamid's argument is his contention that promoting democracy will ultimately protect the United States from the major security threats it faces, particularly terrorism. "Only with the promise of a democratic future," he argues, "can the Middle East break free of the economic, cultural, and political malaise that has, for decades, fueled the rise of religious extremism."

There's something to the idea that authoritarianism has fueled the rise of religious extremism. But as former CIA official Marc Sageman has meticulously documented in his definitive study Understanding Terror Networks, it's those segments of closed societies with the most social, economic, cultural, and political opportunities that lend themselves to the most dangerous extremism -- not those that feel the jackboot most heavily. Al-Qaeda, the only jihadist movement that truly threatens America, is comprised not of Franz Fanon's wretched of the earth, but rather men with advanced graduate degrees. Furthermore, Hamid misunderstands the phenomenon of bin Ladenism if he focuses too much on the Middle East: the future of al-Qaeda lies with men like Mohammed Siddique Khan, the mastermind of the London bombings of July 7, 2005. Khan didn't grow up in an authoritarian backwater, but in the heart of democratic Great Britain.

For American interests, it gets worse. During the Bush era, the United States has seen that democratic processes in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt have strengthened precisely the religious extremists that Hamid thinks they will ultimately defeat. But the United States is insane to promote democratic elections in which the victors proclaim eschatological hostility to it. Hamid blithely writes that "over the long-term, the responsibilities of government are likely to privilege pragmatism over ideology, practicality over posturing," but democracies, both advanced and maturing, are always vulnerable to demagoguery, and are particularly vulnerable when faced with security threats like those likely to plague the Middle East for the foreseeable future. (India, Israel, Turkey, and the United States -- all democracies under threat -- have grown more reactionary in recent decades, not less.) Hamid concedes that in the "short term," the rise of radical Islamists will be "frustrating," but "in the right conditions and with sustained international involvement," those Islamists will moderate themselves. The idea of democratic failure -- the idea that democracy in certain conditions cannot meet social expectations, leading to its collapse -- never occurs to him, despite three and a half years of the Iraq War.

Even more perversely, Hamid argues that living with such "frustrations" is the mark of a progressive foreign policy. For all its tough-minded posturing, this is doughfaced liberalism at its worst: the implicit assumption that good intentions excuse actual, real-world consequences. To take the example of Iraq, the rise of democracy is directly correlative with marauding death squads. Among the most powerful figures in democratic Iraq is Moqtada al-Sadr, whose followers serve in parliament, run ministries, and slaughter men in barber shops for insufficient beard growth. Recently, Iraq's most famous archeologist, Donny George, fled to Syria when Sadr's thugs at the Ministry of Antiquities had raised an eyebrow at George's interest in Iraq's pre-Islamic historical treasures. If he returns to democratic Iraq, he will surely be murdered for crimes against Islam. Hamid's argument entails telling George that if he survives enough elections, Sadr's men will eventually change their minds. This is liberalism?

I don't want to be too hard on Hamid. He wrote his essay in the service of a vital progressive (and American) pursuit: to chart a foreign-policy course that eschews the hegemonic and militaristic disasters of neoconservatism and the cynical and occasionally amoral impulses of realism. Unfortunately, his fetishization of democracy fails both America and liberalism. There is a better alternative for both liberal interests and the national interest: the promotion not of democracy, but of human rights.

What liberal democracy-promoters want to see in foreign closed societies is more precisely located in the advance of human rights: the protection of basic human dignity, freedom, and justice. Indeed, liberal democracy-promoters frequently criticize their neoconservative cousins for their lack of concern with the social protections of civil and legal rights. But it's time to uncouple human rights from democracy, and recognize that democracy has value only to the degree to which it safeguards human rights -- which is to say the degree to which democracy is liberal. Democracy in that respect is a fine and worthy thing, but the emphasis for the United States and for liberalism should be on the end, not the means.

The classic American formulation of human rights is Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Human beings are entitled to express their consciences and to enjoy protections from the excesses of both state and market power. As demonstrated by the jeopardy to democracy that FDR's generation observed worldwide, these basic freedoms both save democracy from failure and make democracy meaningful. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an unfulfilled but worthy attempt to codify this basic compact between the individual and her society around the world.

The test for America abroad should be: to what degree do American policies advance or diminish these human rights? And, in the unfortunate but inevitable cases of conflict between human rights and American interests, to what degree does subordinating either result in the best balance of each? Answering these two questions provides the best chance of keeping both America and liberalism from sliding into Manicheanism, messianism, naivete, or amorality.

Take the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Reopening territorial negotiations passes the test, since conditions of negotiation offer the only hope of advancing both human rights and the American interest in Middle Eastern stability. What fails the test is the demand for Palestine to elect a new government prior to such negotiations, since that only creates a fruitful environment for anti-Israel, anti-American demagogues unconcerned with human rights to triumph -- as happened with Hamas's January electoral victory.

It should also go without saying that invading and occupying foreign countries to impose the promotion of human rights is an absurdity, since it is in the nature of occupation to be unconcerned with human rights. There will, however, be conditions of human-rights emergency that compel the consideration of military solutions -- namely genocide. Here is where the liberal conflation of democracy and human rights can go totally awry. Military intervention to halt genocide in Bosnia and humanitarian emergency in Kosovo ultimately worked. Some liberal advocates of those interventions, including some at my magazine, The New Republic, mistakenly concluded -- due to a sincere but misguided conflation of human rights with democracy -- that military occupation to impose democracy could work in Iraq as well. By strictly disaggregating democracy and human rights, liberals, and especially liberal hawks, can avoid advocating future calamities. Human rights advocates like Kenneth Roth and this magazine's Matthew Yglesias and Sam Rosenfeld have laid out compelling rationales for liberal intervention along these lines.

Admittedly, putting human rights at the center of American foreign policy is problematic. Concern for human rights entails an unconcern for national sovereignty, which any nation in question inevitably will find unpalatable. The test for liberal American foreign policy should be the aforementioned question of balance: whether alternatives to a given policy that damages human rights will result in a net benefit for human rights at an acceptable cost to U.S. interests. This will not always result in a happy answer. But for the sake of both counterterrorism and WMD nonproliferation, it should be clear that, say, abandoning Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf to his Islamist rivals would benefit neither human rights nor American interests. However, strengthening Pakistani institutions that bolster human rights -- such as the nation's legal and economic systems -- as well as mediating the regional conflict over Kashmir would benefit U.S. interests and address the sources of Pakistani turmoil that lead to both military dictatorship and the jihadist alternative.

Historians will debate the degree to which the Bush administration has been sincerely committed to democracy promotion abroad. Regardless, when a U.S. secretary of state cheers the destruction of Lebanon as representing the birth pangs of a new Middle East, or when the president of the United States praises an Iraqi government that is complicit in sectarian murder, something has gone dangerously wrong. The Bush administration has taken both the United States and the world into catastrophe -- fetishizing instability today in the messianic promise of a democratic tomorrow. Liberals of all people should not be buying into the same illusion while promising to do it better. It's past time for liberals to get out of the shadow of democracy promotion and into the bright sunshine of human rights.

Spencer Ackerman is an associate editor at The New Republic.

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