For many people who opposed President Bush’s re-election, myself included, foreign policy was the single most important reason for our opposition. We believed that Bush had led the nation to war on false pretenses, by fabricating (or at least greatly exaggerating) the danger posed by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. We were convinced that the Bush administration had disastrously bungled the postwar occupation of Iraq. We were appalled by the deterioration of the United States’ relations with its traditional European allies. And, most importantly, we did not trust the Bush administration to effectively manage American foreign policy in the future. We were sure that four more years of President Bush would result in further fraying of transatlantic alliances, continued chaos in Iraq and more setbacks for American influence and values.
In the time since Election Day, I for one have lost my certitude. Over the past few months, a cavalcade of extraordinary developments has shaken the landscape of global politics, in particular in the Middle East. First, Ukrainians refused to accept the stealing of their presidential election, launching an “Orange Revolution” to ensure that the rightful victor won. Next, Palestinians elected the moderate Mahmoud Abbas as president, resulting in the best Israeli-Palestinian relations in years. The successful Palestinian vote was followed by the Iraqi election in late January, in which millions of Iraqis defied the bloody insurgency and dramatically improved the odds that a legitimate government will emerge. More recently, massive anti-Syrian demonstrations rocked Beirut after the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, causing the collapse of Lebanon’s puppet government and a Syrian pledge of partial military withdrawal. Saudi Arabia also held elections for local government positions last month, and Egypt announced that a multiparty presidential election will take place later this year.
All of these positive developments have put President Bush’s opponents in a bit of a tight spot. On the one hand, liberals want to cheer the spread of democracy to one of the most autocratic regions on the planet. On the other hand, it is galling for many Democrats that this is all occurring on Bush’s watch — and that his policies are responsible in part for the recent efflorescence of democracy. Some Democrats have responded by downplaying the significance of the Middle Eastern elections; yes, citizens may have had the chance to vote, but the region’s governments are still frightfully oppressive and human rights are still routinely violated. Other Democrats have argued that none of the developments is due to Bush’s foreign policy. On this theory, the Iraq war retarded the advance of democracy, and the democratic renaissance of the past few months would have occurred sooner had it not been for America’s missteps over the last four years.
In my view, both of these responses are misguided. They make Democrats look small-minded, and work against an ideal — the spread of democracy and liberty — that is historically associated far more with liberalism than conservatism. But if cheap criticism is not to be the order of the day, how should Democrats respond to the positive developments in the Middle East? First, they should applaud the fact that the United States is seeking to associate itself with democratic movements rather than dictatorial regimes — and demand more consistency in the application of this principle. Democracy should be promoted not only in America’s authoritarian enemies (e.g. Syria and Iran), but also in its authoritarian friends (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan).
Second, Democrats should point out that democracy, while crucially important, is not the only value that matters in U.S. foreign policy-making. Respect for human rights, clean capable governance, economic growth and the enactment of favorable policies are all significant as well, and not necessarily correlated with democracy (let alone a single election). In much of the Arab world, indeed, free elections have the potential to sweep into power Islamic fundamentalists who share the United States’ affinity for democracy (since it would enable their electoral success), but detest almost every other value cherished by America.
Third, Democrats should emphasize the importance of competence. President Bush may have his heart in the right place when it comes to the spread of democracy, but his administration has shown its tactical ineptness over and over again. Despite its elections, Iraq continues to be gripped by violence and political uncertainty. And American signals toward Syria and Palestine have been puzzlingly mixed; the United States has yet to impose tighter sanctions on Syria in the wake of Hariri’s assassination, and has done almost nothing of late to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process despite Abbas’ enthusiasm for negotiations.
To some Democrats, these suggestions will seem like a sellout. They concede, after all, that there is something fundamentally right about President Bush’s foreign policy. But what Democrats must realize is that the fact that Bush supports a strategy is not itself a reason to oppose the strategy. Bush has largely abandoned the Republican Party’s historic focus on realpolitik, and embraced the Democratic goal of promoting democracy and freedom around the world. Democrats should welcome this shift — and strive to make it as long-lasting and successful as possible.
Nicholas Stephanopoulos is a second-year student at the Law School. His column appears on alternate Mondays.