Responding to Democracy

Wesley Clark's contribution to the Washington Monthly's Democracy in the Middle East forum is a great, great read, much better than the title made it sound. On one level, the essay is the surprisingly adept effort of a 2008 presidential candidate to account for hopefully signs in the Arab world. Clark does so by leveraging his Reaganite past and demanding humility from the Bush administration:

The administration has generally responded to these openings by adding to the pressure, calling for withdrawal of Syrian forces and for democracy. But like the rooster who thinks his crowing caused the dawn, those who rule Washington today have a habit of taking credit for events of which they were in fact not the primary movers. Many of them have insisted, for instance, that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was largely the consequence of President Reagan's military policies. As a military officer at the time, and a Reagan supporter, I would be happy to give the Gipper that credit. In truth, however, our military posture was only one factor. As in the Middle East today, individuals who labored for freedom within these countries performed the bulk of the work. Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and other contemporaries looked at America as an ideal, not as the muscle, on every street corner. Other, truly transformative agents of Western influence, such as Pope John Paul II, the labor union movement, international commercial institutions, and the influences of next-door neighbors like the Federal Republic of Germany were at work.

Today, American democratic values are admired in the Middle East, but our policies have generated popular resentment. Although it may come as a surprise to those of us here, there is a passionate resistance to the U.S. “imposing” its style of democracy to suit American purposes. Democratic reformers in the Middle East don't want to have their own hopes and dreams subordinated to the political agenda of the United States. It's for this reason that the administration shouldn't try to take too much credit for the coming changes. Or be too boastful about our own institutions. Or too loud in proclaiming that we're thrilled about Middle Eastern democracy—mostly because it makes us feel safer. A little humility is likely to prove far more useful than chest-thumping.

That's a pretty impressive response, I think. The guy's learning. But on another level, his piece is a blueprint for how America should be responding to overseas developments. And that's where Clark is at his most interesting. Too much US involvement, he argues, can actually co-opt democracy movements by making them appear a front for American interests or an imposition of foreign values. That means that when we crow over our remarkable achievements in liberalizing the rest of earth, we may inadvertently be aiding and abetting Islamists who want to take these burgeoning democracies and leverage them into repressive theocracies. If they can paint the liberals as American stooges, their job becomes ever-easier.

One force Clark implies, but doesn't really address, is the danger that American pressure is forcing rulers to make superficial alterations in their political processes, which are in turn allowing them to retain their dictatorships, weakening their country's pro-democracy movements, and strengthening their regimes by spurring them to make surface changes that look like, but aren't, substantive concessions. So by forcing small changes to come from the top we're setting back the fundamental reforms that can only rise from the population. Not sure if that's true, but it's something worth thinking about.