Shadow Government

A Brief History of the ‘Democracy Through Regime Change’ Policy That Never Was (Part 1)

Foreign policy will be prominent in the 2016 elections. After all, how could it be otherwise when America’s foes behead its citizens, conquer countries, and claim the seas for themselves. Still, it is encouraging to hear many candidates call for rebuilding our military, reinvigorating our alliances, and thwarting the disruptors who have had a rather ...

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Foreign policy will be prominent in the 2016 elections. After all, how could it be otherwise when America’s foes behead its citizens, conquer countries, and claim the seas for themselves. Still, it is encouraging to hear many candidates call for rebuilding our military, reinvigorating our alliances, and thwarting the disruptors who have had a rather free hand the last six years.

Restoring the United States to its rightful and necessary place as the strongest and most influential great power is a vital short- to medium-term goal, and that requires hard power. But foreign policy is about more than these shorter-range goals and the hard power of our military might and diplomatic carrots and sticks that we use to get other states to behave the way we want them to. It is also about trying to shape the international system to fit our interests, and that requires long-term thinking and the use of soft and smart power.

Long-term thinking leads us to act on our hope of seeing a world that is more and more made up of democratic capitalist states: States where people enjoy their natural rights to political and economic liberty, and where the leaders and their publics are less inclined to choose conflict over peace because it is simply not in their interests to do so.

Fortunately, there are strategies and tactics we can employ to move the world toward our vision. We need make nothing up out of whole cloth, for the vision is as old as the republic and the strategies and tactics are at least 70 years old. I’m referring, of course, to support for democrats around the world whether they hold office and are trying to consolidate a weak democracy or whether they are the opposition seeking self-governance.

Unfortunately, trying to have a conversation about supporting democracy comes with a lot of baggage these days. Critics of George W. Bush’s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan equate the administration’s policy of regime change with its other and more far-reaching policy of democracy support — what Bush called the “freedom agenda.” The critics conflate regime change with democracy support and that leaves the latter looking like an armed imposition of democracy. They are wrong.

In part one of this two-part series, I want to argue against this conflation, removing the distraction that impedes a clear understanding of what support for democracy really is and why it is important. In part two I will define democracy support, note what it is not, and explain why the 2016 candidates should include it in their foreign policy proposals.

As both an academic and a practitioner, my work has been focused on support for democracy since 1989. I have studied it, taught about it, written about it, and, more importantly, worked on it both from the standpoint of a Hill staffer during the Clinton administration and as an appointee in the Bush ’43 administration. But since the Bush years, I have had to get used to bringing up the subject of democracy support only to be met immediately with an attack on these ideas and efforts with everything from the absurd “Bush lied, people died” mantra to more thoughtful and compelling arguments about the difficulties of “imposing democracy.” And it is not just Bush critics who fall prey to this kind of thinking — some Republicans do as well.

I suspect that these attacks, in most cases, have a lot more to do with the critics’ opposition to Bush’s war policy than with the actual decades-old American policy of supporting democrats around the world, but that often gets lost in the debate.

None of those criticisms are compelling, however, because they do not line up with the facts. If one opposes the decisions to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, that’s well and good, but those decisions are separate from the question of what to do after the regimes were toppled and also from the overall policy of support for democracy.

The Bush administration sought regime change in Iraq and Afghanistan first and foremost for national security reasons. The president included in his war aims the desire to help Iraq and Afghanistan become constitutional democracies because he believed it was right and because he believed it was practical, and one cannot blame him for that. The United States in the 21st century could hardly remove Saddam Hussein and the Taliban and then put new dictators in their places. Moreover, he believed in what academics call the democratic peace theory — that world peace is augmented as more states become democratic. So the United States did not impose democracy from outside but rather aided liberated Iraqis and Afghans in their attempt to build democratic states. We did not create a democratic opposition out of thin air. For years, citizens of these countries (many as exiles) had been risking their lives in this endeavor. It insults them to pretend otherwise. So while it is legitimate to criticize the decision to topple the regimes, once they were toppled the only acceptable policy was to try to help Iraqis and Afghans build democratic states. And with these wars President Bush was not inaugurating a new policy of “imposition of democracy through regime change.” No such policy ever existed; the administration did not argue that it was going to impose democracy by force.

True enough, the administration did not plan for the aftermath of the war very well and some members of the administration appear to have been too optimistic about how smoothly and quickly these war-torn countries with no history of democracy would begin to look like Switzerland. Many observers have catalogued the mistakes. But we should appreciate that not planning for the aftermath does not make the long-standing U.S. policy of supporting democracy a folly or a failure.

So even though it is raging anew, let’s set aside the debate over the decision to go to war and the critique of the failure to plan for the aftermath and move on to an understanding of support for democracy, a distinct policy issue. Let us stipulate that “imposition of democracy through regime change” is theoretically flawed and practically impossible, that it was not the Bush administration’s policy, and that it is not the same as supporting democrats around the world.

With that out of the way, part two of this series (which will be posted tomorrow) will offer a definition of democracy support, review its history and outline what the 2016 hopefuls should say about this important foreign policy issue.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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