For our text, let's use the column by David Ignatius in Tuesday's Washington Post.
The column describes a conversation Ignatius had with new Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, in which the president describes his guidelines for peaceful overthrows of autocratic regimes.
That, though, is not what I want to discuss, not specifically at least.
What interests me is the last line of the column: "The Bush administration talks about democratic change. But it's the Saakashvilis, armed with their homegrown how-to manuals, who actually make it happen."
That sentiment is obviously critical, at least to some degree, of the Bush administration's role as an advocate and force for democratization on the international stage. Implicit in that line, however, is an assumption which now permeates much of the debate about foreign policy in this year's campaign.
That is, that however successfully or wisely the goal has been pursued, the Bush administration is the champion of democratization as a strategic goal on the world stage while John Kerry is the advocate of a more traditional foreign policy Realism, which prioritizes stability and alliances with existing powers over democratization and the export of American values.
Indeed, this was the premise of a critical David Brooks column in the Times from June 19th ("Kerry's Cruel Realism").
Perhaps the clearest sign of the ubiquity of this assumption is that it is not only advanced by the president's advocates but -- from a different and more critical perspective -- by his opponents as well. Many of them fault the president for a heedless or ill-conceived neo-Wilsonianism, which will damage US national security by pursuing illusory or improbable goals.
But talk is cheap.
And when you look at the actual record I think there is very little evidence that the assumption is at all valid. I don't mean simply that the Bush administration has been unsuccessful or incompetent in pursuing its plans for democratization. I don't even mean that they've been hypocritical or inconsistent. I mean that democratization as a moral or strategic goal simply doesn't figure into the White House's plans.
Let's start with a review of the administration's record in the 189 UN member states whose governments the US has not overthrown in the last three and one half years.
In Central Asia the administration has strengthened ties with coalescing autocracies like Uzbekistan, supporting and facilitating the intensification of domestic repression. No one even disputes this.
In Libya, the US has reestablished diplomatic ties with the Qaddafi government even though it is widely conceded that we are doing so in the context of a domestic crackdown.
We have just recently awarded Pakistan the title of "major non-NATO ally" despite the fact that that the country is governed by a thinly-veiled military dictatorship, that it is a serious offender by most human rights and democracy measures, and has the added benefits of being both a major proliferator of weapons of mass destruction and possessing an intelligence service with longstanding ties to al Qaida.
Other cases are less clear-cut. But attention must be given to Russia where Vladimir Putin has slowly de-democratized the state while enjoying undiminished friendship from the Bush administration. In other cases, where on-going projects of democratization hang in the balance -- the Balkans being the clearest, but by no means the only case -- the administration has pursued a policy of, at best, studied inattention.
One might further add that our most serious fallings-out with longstanding allies have been in cases -- like Germany, South Korea, Turkey and perhaps now Spain -- where governments have bucked our policies -- sometimes seeking political advantage in the doing of it, to be sure -- because their populations overwhelmingly oppose our policies.
I don't pretend that all of these decisions were wrong. In the case of Pakistan I think it has been, by and large, the correct and unavoidable course, though I think the "major non-NATO ally" business was perhaps laying it on a bit thick. And to one degree or another many instances of the Bush administration's cozying up to dictators has been the result of the exigencies of its 'war on terror.'
In essence, if you support the US war on terror, how you run your country is your own business.
But pleading broader geostrategic interests as a defense for supporting dictatorships and human rights abusers is irrelevant as a defense precisely because it is always the defense -- and sometimes even a valid one.
American governments have seldom supported autocracies and tyrants simply for the fun of it. In most cases, we have done so because it served our broader geostrategic interests as we understood and defined them at the moment, whether that be 'stability', American economic interests, fighting communism, ensuring the steady flow of oil, etc. The fact that our priority interest is now opposing terrorism is just the newest defining national goal.
Of course, the two cases where the Bush administration's advocates would beg to differ would be those two cases I chose to set aside at the outset: Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, I think that at any time in recent history any American government would have attempted to put in place a government that is at least nominally democratic in any state it overthrew. And the case of sorry inattention to Afghanistan makes a very good argument for the proposition that actual democratization is very lower on the list of the administration's priorities.
The administration's advocates would also note various initiatives put forward by the White House to advance the cause of democracy, particularly in the Middle East. But these have tended to be ineffectual or quickly forgotten.
Remember, the key here is the advancement of democracy not only as a good thing, a humanitarian gesture, a form of state-imposed meta-philanthropy, but as a way of advancing American national security. But for that to mean anything one would have to point to cases where we, or in this case, the administration made short-term geopolitical sacrifices to advance our longterm interest in democratization.
And I cannot think of a single case whether in Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Pakistan or Russia or China or Uzbekistan or anywhere where that has happened.
At the risk of repeating myself, this is not to say that the US should, willy nilly, upend friendly non-democracies with an indifference to American strategic interests. But if that's the model the administration is following then there's really, at best, no difference with previous administrations and the whole premise -- so widespread now in our political and foreign policy debates -- that the Bush administration is hawkish on democracy or neo-Wilsonian -- and that this is a departure from previous administrations or a potential Kerry administration -- is just an empty claim embraced by the inattentive and incurious.