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Tuesday, 13 April 2010

US 'Democracy' Promotion - Some Problems

In a recent article in the online version of The Guardian ("US foreign policy isn't thuggish"; 12 April 2010), Drs. Tim Lynch and Nicolas Bouchet, respected London-based academics, rebut claims made by Martin Jenkins that the United States was motivated by 'democracy' promotion in their military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. They argue instead that US policy is and was motivated by perceived "serious national security threat(s)," justified by the rhetoric of democracy promotion to the American public.

This argument, part of which is almost beyond contention (the part that suggests that the US rarely, if ever, really promotes democrcay, western-style or other), contains serious flaws, an assumption that even Lynch and Bouchet's (numerous and robust) online critics have failed to address: the idea of "security threats" as the source of US behaviour. That's the first flaw, suggesting that US behaviour in invading Iraq, in particular, but in in its foreign policy pursuits in general, originates from external security threats. The broader assumption, left unexplored by critics, is that the United States is a defensive power, responding to external threats. Herein lies the main problem.

The fact of the case is that the United States has been a systematically proactive and expansionist power since 1945 (at the very least): external threats to that hegemonic project are forever wheeled out as justification for expansionism. Initially, it was Nazi/fascist aggression; then the Soviet Union. When the Soviet bloc collapsed there ensued a period of authentic confusion in US national "security" thinking - and the search for a plausible new "threat", new monsters to destroy, began. This was especially significant because of the deafening demands for a "peace dividend" - masses of people demanding that the Pentagon's budget be slashed and more spent at home dealing with educational failure, rising social inequality, and so on.

NATO, supposedly a north Atlantic alliance, which was formed in 1949 as a defensive military pact against the communist "threat", did not go out of business in the 1990s - it's now a global alliance, waging war in Afghanistan, part of the continuing global war on terror. US military forces were 're-set', as it were, but not reduced in fire power or world-wide deployment. The US is the world's 'regional power': it's "security" interests are universal.

9-11 provided new impetus to America's imperial ambitions by supplying it with a new, plausible, enemy: Islamic jihadism. But it did not fundamentally alter the hegemonic project. An article in The (London) Sunday Times' Business section (11 April, 2010) noted that the US military is the largest 'single-organisation' consumer of global oil. This is not a search for national security in any 'normal' sense of that term: this is an imperial project encompassing the entire globe and involving a complex combination of commercial, geo-strategic, financial, ideological and other interests.

By accepting the use of the term "national security" to frame US foreign policies, we fail to recognise the imperial character of the United States foreign policy establishment.

The second flaw in the Lynch/Bouchet case is its acceptance, by the end of their article, that US attempts at democracy promotion should be lauded, and that US democracy promotion "deserves to be improved and not abandoned". This is after stating quite clearly at the outset that democracy promotion was merely how liberal nations like the US "frame their actions", presumably because 'ordinary' Americans cannot possibly understand when their country's "security" is threatened, especially by small, distant, poorly-armed countries. This not only contradicts the initial argument; it also imports through the back door the idea that the US is interested in democracy promotion per se, rather than just as a rhetorical device to justify aggression or other forms of external intervention. (Nor does it unpack what the US actually defines as 'democracy": market democracy - one dollar, one vote which, in the real world of income and wealth inequalities, has devastating social and political consequences).

The Lynch/Bouchet case, as presently advanced, is a pretty uncritical apology for US foreign policy, as it goes about the world securing itself against threats and spreading freedom as a by-product: a veritable "empire of liberty" as the neo-conservatives would (and did) say. The bloodshed, however, in America's savage wars, and the friends with whom the US does business, tell a very different story.


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  2. I always find the debate about US democracy promotion a fascinating. Not least because of the way in which many of those who supported the Iraq war “for different reasons” to democracy promotion, are often the ones who try to get this in through the back door. So Iraq wasn’t done for democracy promotion, but it’s what has to happen when “now we are there”. What amuses me most about this is that such individuals claim to be the superior purveyors of empirical knowledge and “political science”. Yet rarely have they gone to the effort of diachronically analysing the events that led to the invasion as it pertains to democracy promotion. If they had, they would have discovered the pivotal moment in this decision as it pertains to the wider transformation of the region – namely the events of November 29, 2001, where the issue of Iraq and the idea of democratising the Middle East began to be developed as two distinct, but conjunctive, ideas.
    This was the result of Donald Rumsfeld asking Paul Wolfowitz to bring together scholars from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). This meeting, which Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld’s consultant Steve Herbits termed “Bletchley II”, was called together to answer broader questions that the Pentagon was unable to answer, such as ‘Who are the terrorists? Where did this come from? How does it relate to Islamic history, the history of the Middle East, and contemporary Middle East tensions? What are we up against here?’
    The goal of this meeting was to construct post-9/11 policy towards the Middle East, which would be drawn up as a memo and circulated around the Bush administration. Although this memo remains classified, what little information is available is highly revealing. The title of the memo was Delta of Terrorism. Significantly, the metaphor of a delta was chosen to conjure images of the mouth of a river from which terrorism flows from the entire MENA region. According to Christopher DeMuth’s description of the meeting’s conclusions a wide ranging plan for US-MENA relations was put forward, which mirrors the almost all the aspects of the Freedom Agenda. Countries that were deemed important to long term national interests, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt ,were highlighted as important to transforming the region, but as part of a gradual process resulting from the removal of Saddam Hussein. Iran was believed to be a threat, but too difficult to deal with. Consequently, Saddam Hussein was seen as an easier, more vulnerable target that could be removed. At the meeting Baathism was seen as ‘an Arab form of fascism transplanted to Iraq’ and that the Bush administration should consider itself ‘facing a two-generation war’ starting ‘with Iraq’. This, it was believed, would be ‘the only way to transform the region’.
    This memo certainly proved to be a tipping point for many in the administration, as it provided a broad vision for how to deal with the MENA region. When the memo was hand delivered to members of Bush’s war cabinet, Rice said that the memo was ‘very, very persuasive’, Cheney was ‘pleased with the memo’ and the President was now focused on the ‘malignancy’ of the Middle East. Moreover, the memo reveals an important chain of events. Firstly, that the notion of invading Iraq was set in motion before any conception of its wider impact on transforming the region. However, within less than a fortnight after the President asked Donald Rumsfeld to look into invading Iraq, a much wider plan was being established that would transform the region starting with an invasion of Iraq. This was the ideational birth of a liberal grand strategy for democratising the MENA region. As such an imperial project was born, that went way beyond just the “security” threat supposedly presented by Iraq (now proven to be politically expedient manufactured rubbish). As such, by the time the war was launched the strategy was democracy promotion, in Iraq, and beyond Iraq.

  3. What an excellent intervention - detailed, research-based, relevant, and insightful. More, please!

  4. What I find perenially unsatisfactory in these types of discussions of American foreign policy is exemplified by Tim and Nick's article, and by the responses to it. The difficulty lies not in the contention that "the United States has been a systematically proactive and expansionist power since 1945 (at the very least)", but in the discussion of whether that is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing.

    Either you're a totally anapologetic imperial apologist like Tim Lynch, Rob Singh, Niall Ferguson and the like; or you're a leftist in the tradition of William Appleman Williams who believes, almost a priori, that everything the US does in the world is downright evil.

    The reality is that whilst the United States has been systematically expansionist it has been an unusual kind of expansionist power, concerned far more about augmenting its structural power in the international system than its relational power vis-a-vis other states. American structural power means that we live in an international system which is far more orderly than it otherwise might be. (Perhaps ironically, it is American power that makes constructivism possible.)

    In some respects then, and as hinted at by Oz's comment, America's post-9/11 interventions have been attempts to strengthen that order more generally against the perceived malignancy of the middle east. Islamist terrorism was conceived of less as a threeat to the United States per se, but to the public good of international order more generally, the concern being that instability in the Middle East would be corrosive both internationally and within other, on the face of it disinterested, states such as the UK.

    The question then becomes one of what means order-sustaining powers like the US should use to protect and promote that public good, which is in itself a complex judgement (although I'd be prepared to concede 'torture=Bad Thing). Sadly, having this debate has become difficult so long as we talk of 'American empire' without a clear perspective on the value of international order. For all the United States' failings in waging the 'war on terror', we should beware of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  5. I take your points Nick, but I think there is more to this debate than just imperial apologists and leftists. What I would say is that, for me at least, I see three absolutely critical moments in the state of US democracy promotion today. The first is the 1899 invasion of the Philippines. This I think is important, because it was the start of the democracy promotion in US foreign policy. What’s interesting about that moment was the manner in which it became a compromise between imperialists and anti-imperialists; “we will invade, but only to create democracy”. This I think is the “original compromise” that fundamentally shaped the path that leads to today.

    The second moment is the Cold War, and the CIA’s funding of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. It was at this moment that democracy promotion became an institutionalised weapon to socially engineer and aid in containment. In and of itself, it didn’t amount to anything breathtaking, but this is the birth child of professional non-partisan “democracy” organisations like NED, Human rights watch, Freedom House … (note both right and left organisations following on from the original compromise). What’s interesting about this, is the manner in which they prioritise the bureaucratisation of “democracy experts” and make expert knowledge the idol of the tribe. Note that this removes democracy as a concept “belonging to people” themselves, and instead turns it into a commodity that can be done “for people”. This decentring is important as it inverts the concept of democracy and makes “Freedom” a positive conception (in the terms of Isaiah Berlin). That is to say that it removes the hermeneutic content of democracy from the end state of the people themselves (i.e. what they understand by the term), and places it into expert hands (i.e. democracy becomes the end state imagined by experts that will socially engineer to reach their desired point). Berlin seriously warns of the dangers of this approach (well at least the desire to impose positive conceptions), when he talks of “raising them to a ‘higher’ level of freedom” which:

    “at times [makes it] justifiable, to coerce men in the name of some goal … which they would, if they were more enlightened, themselves pursue, but do not because they are blind or ignorant or corrupt. This renders it easy for me to conceive of myself as coercing others for their own sake, in their, not my, interest. I am then claiming that I know what they truly need better than they know it themselves … Once I take this view, I am in a position to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture them in the name, and on behalf of their ‘real’ selves”.

    It’s this move that I see as allowing serious dangerous anomalies to occur in democracy promotion, from trying to strangle majority moderate Islamist movements, all the way to atrocities in the name of freedom – how else could you put the sign ‘Honour bound to defend freedom’ on the gates of Guantanamo Bay without a sense of irony?

    The third moment, is what I mentioned in my last comment, about the inversion of concepts by the right wing, from socially progressive/ civil rights movements of the 1960’s. Basically what I’m referring to here started in the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign, but was then taken up more successively by Reagan. What’s interesting about Reagan however is the manner in which the neoliberal consensus was born, which allowed a “new” language of democracy promotion to come about, and developed the original compromise around neoliberalism – which then translated into the “third way” under Clinton and Blair…

    What I’m saying is that this isn’t a left and right debate, so much as it is a debate about the nature of democracy itself. Both “left”, “right” and centre are complicit in all three of these movements (by virtue of buying too heavily into the enlightenment) and although they clearly mean well, as the proverb goes “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

  6. Oz, you're absolutely right the debate should be about more than left and right, but issue is that it so often isn't. So we should pat ourselves collectively on the back for taking the debate beyond those simple dynamics.

    This is a peculiar problem to the United States of course, because it is THE liberal state, if you like, the only state whose liberalism defines its identity at a fundamental level. So whilst I take your point about the Philippines I'd actually argue that democracy promotion is a core element of American identity from before the revolution; a tax rebellion, yes, but not against taxation, against taxation without representation. Thereafter, the whole history of American foreign policy can be reasonably read - i think - as a continuing struggle between the impulse to protect liberty at home by avoiding foreign entanglements and the imperative to be true to liberty by recognising its universal character and promoting it abroad.

    Now if democracy promotion is as fundamental to the very concept of 'America' as this suggests, then it's not so much an 'original compromise' as it is a necessary state of being for the United States, so long as it is engaged with the world. What it means is that you can either have the US engaged in international relations and committed to democracy promotion; or you can have it disengaged, burying its head in the sand and steering clear of the murky world of great power politics - the Pat Buchanan stance. What you can't have is a United States that acts like a European great power: its national interest will always be defined by the ideas of democracy promotion, this is a necessary condition of American identity, not a historical contingency.