Plans to deliver democracy to various parts of the world have often crashed and burned. Photo: iStock
Plans to deliver democracy to various parts of the world have often crashed and burned. Photo: iStock

“Democracies don’t go to war with each other,” declared then-US president George W Bush as he outlined his vision for peace in the Middle East in the aftermath of the US-backed regime change in Iraq and in the midst of the efforts to spread democracy throughout the region and the rest of the world.

Engendering democracy across the Middle East “must be a focus of American policy for decades to come,” Bush said in a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, a federally funded foundation that promoted reform abroad, in November 2003. And he insisted that removing authoritarian regimes from power and holding free elections in the Middle Eastern countries would be the most effective way to establish long-term political stability and create the foundations for peace in the region.

“Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe because in the long run stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty,” the president explained, declaring that Washington now would be leading a “global democratic revolution.”

Bush was endorsing in his address what political scientists refer to as the Democratic Peace Theory (DPT). It asserts, as a leading proponent of the idea, scholar Rudolph Rummel, put it in 1999, that “democracy is a general cure for political or collective violence of any kind.”

Hence, according to the DPT theory, democratic leaders are restrained by the resistance of their people to bearing the costs and deaths of war. At the same time, democratic culture of negotiation and conciliation, plus the hurdles to taking swift action, also favors peace.

In a way, the DPT has become the theoretical basis for much of US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. American leaders and pundits proposed that US engagement with authoritarian regimes such as those in China and Russia would not only benefit US economic interests. It would also encourage them to become more free and democratic societies that would live in peace with the rest of the world.

Whether it was China or Russia or the Middle East, economic and diplomatic engagement with the United States would help drive political and economic reforms, as members of an expanding middle class would press for democratic change. That in turn would lead eventually to the pursuit of more accommodative and peaceful foreign policies.

Wishful thinking

But unfortunately this foreign-policy prognosis has proved to be nothing more than wishful thinking. The Freedom Agenda that Bush had promoted in the Middle East and the support that his successor Barack Obama provided to anti-government movements associated with the Arab Spring led to the holding of free elections in Iraq, Palestine and Egypt, but ended up bringing to power radical Islamist political groups, and igniting sectarian and tribal civil wars, that led to more instability and conflicts in the Middle East.

The plans to democratize Iraq and the Middle East produced a strategic disaster that hurt US interests in the region and, at the same time, strengthened the power of radical, violent and anti-American players that make Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi look like your friendly neighborhood democrat

To put it in simple terms, the plans to democratize Iraq and the Middle East produced a strategic disaster that hurt US interests in the region and, at the same time, strengthened the power of radical, violent and anti-American players that make Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi look like your friendly neighborhood democrat.

At the same time, while US engagement with Russia and China may have helped grow their economies, it certainly failed to transform them into functioning democratic systems and, by extension, into allies of the United States.

If anything, the US campaign to advance freedom, either through the use of military power as in the Middle East, or by way of diplomatic and economic engagement as with China and Russia, has given rise to the forces of nationalism and to the coming to power of authoritarian regimes that are hostile to the values of democracy and peace and tend to resist any American pressure to liberalize their political systems.

‘Rethinking policies’

Recognizing that reality, the current US president, Donald Trump, asserted in his National Security Strategy document issued late last year that his administration would need to “rethink the policies of the past two decades, policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners,” noting that for the most part, “this premise turned out to be false.” Indeed!

In fact, candidate Trump had spent a large part of his election campaign bashing president Obama’s policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran, and in particular, the nuclear deal that his predecessor in office signed with the Iranians as part of his diplomatic opening to Tehran.

Indeed, in addition to promoting the national-security significance of the nuclear deal with Iran, Obama, echoing the DPT, proposed that US engagement with Iran would bring about political and economic changes in that country.

Obama suggested that the election of the reformist Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president “indicated that there was an appetite among the Iranian people for a rejoining with the international community, an emphasis on the economics and the desire to link up with a global economy,” as he put it in an interview with The New York Times’ Tom Friedman in April 2015.

“And so what we’ve seen over the last several years, I think, is the opportunity for those forces within Iran that want to break out of the rigid framework that they have been in for a long time to move in a different direction,” Obama said.

He predicted that a nuclear deal with Iran and US engagement with it would help accelerate political and economic reforms in that country and would strengthen “those forces inside of Iran that say, ‘We don’t need to view ourselves entirely through the lens of our war machine. Let’s excel in science and technology and job creation and developing our people.’”

The problem of Iran

These and similar statements were panned by candidate Trump and his advisers as a few more examples of president Obama’s foreign-policy naiveté. And they contrasted them with the more realpolitik approach that the new president would adopt vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic.

Core US national-security interests would determine President Trump’s strategy toward Iran, or for that matter toward China, Russia or Iraq. Whether those countries would be marching toward democracy or were violating human rights would be beside the point. What would matter would be the extent that their interests would align with those of Washington.

So it is kind of ironic that against the backdrop of growing street anti-regime protests in Iran, President Trump and his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, have become cheerleaders for political change in Iran, with the White House occupant tweeting non-stop in support of the demonstrators.

In contrast to the “Green Movement” protests that took place in Iran in 2009 and brought together pro-democracy forces in Tehran and other urban centers, the current protests in Iran seem to be driven mostly by anger over the economic conditions in some of the provincial areas of the country, and not by demands for political reforms.

In any case, it is not clear at all that the collapse of the regime in Tehran and the holding of free elections in Iran would necessarily advance US interests in the long run. It could actually bring to power a secular nationalist government that like its theocratic predecessor would strive to assert Iran’s strategic and economic power in the region, including through the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Washington should therefore avoid intervening directly or indirectly in the current political drama in Iran. It should certainly refrain from engineering a new regime change in the Middle East by launching another campaign to promote a Freedom Agenda.

Instead, the Trump administration should let the Iranians write their own political history that would reflect their own hopes and not American wishful thinking, while ensuring that US strategic interests are protected under any evolving scenario.

Leon Hadar

Leon Hadar is a Washington-based journalist and global affairs analyst. He is currently a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a geo-strategic consulting firm. He authored Quagmire: America in the Middle East​ (Cato Institute, 1992) and Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). He has a PhD in international relations from American University in Washington, DC, and master's degrees from the schools of journalism and international affairs at Columbia University.

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