Democracy Follies


David Rieff has a nice piece over at Democracy Journal where he takes aim at those who stubbornly insist that exporting American-style democracy is a sound foreign policy. Rieff effectively argues that those who still think the foreign policy of the post Cold War world remains viable are shameless hucksters for empire. He writes:

To put the matter even more pointedly, after all the harm the United States has done in the Arab Middle East over the course of the past decade—not least, the comparatively unremarked fact that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein seems to have led not to democracy but to a world-historical tragedy that will be remembered long after Saddam and Bush have become footnotes: the end of Christianity in Iraq, one of the oldest loci of the faith—the only sensible thing to conclude is that in fact Washington is very bad at promoting democracy, and that, desirable as democracy doubtless is, its gift is not and therefore must not be asserted by influential policy intellectuals to be within America’s grace and favor. And so, though I have no doubts about either Brooks’s or Perriello’s moral seriousness, nor that the world they would like to see would be a far better one than that which we inhabit today, when I read two former members of the U.S. government calling not for an end to democracy promotion and humanitarian military interventions by the United States, but for better forms of both, I really do want to ask them: “Have you no shame?”

And again:

If the debate is about American interests, then Brooks, Perriello, and those who share their view need to demonstrate why a democratic world order is necessary to the security of the United States. For despite the fact that this is so regularly claimed, it is anything but obvious. At the very least, there needs to be more consideration than democracy promotion advocates and partisans of humanitarian intervention have been willing to give of the costs as well as the benefits of the American project of fostering, to the extent it can do so prudently, a systematic, universal, global change of all political systems that are not yet democratic. That would require a commitment that is actually far more radical than regime changes in a few countries like Iraq or Afghanistan. Only the belief that in fact democracy is what the world wants already, and thus, morally speaking, we are pushing on an open door, could justify such a swollen ambition.

We have been down this road before, and its name is empire. If they follow Brooks and Perriello, American policy-makers will most likely declare our actions to be taken in the name of human rights, rather than what the French empire called France’s “civilizing mission,” or what Kipling called “The White Man’s Burden.” But at the risk of sounding like Gertrude Stein, an empire is an empire is an empire. At this point in history, surely it is time to consider instead whether the moral thing for us to do would be to stand down rather than double down.

As Rieff notes, there really aren’t dissenting voices among our policy-makers, and given the known costs, never mind the unknown ones or unintended consequences of the policy, the absence of such voices who recognize this call to endless war is a serious deficit in our politics.

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