Neither a crusade nor a sham

Dick Meyer has a characterically thought-provoking piece on what he considers the myths pertaining to Arab democracy. Each of the alleged myths deserves discussion, but I want to focus on this one — “the Bush administration is a consistent, committed advocate for democracy in the Middle East.”

Meyer is correct that there is much myth surrounding the extent to which the Bush administration’s actions in the Middle East policy have been driven by a commitment to democracy. But while many overstate the role of that commitment, Meyer errs in the other direction when he treats treats our advocacy of democratization as nothing more than a post hoc rationalization for an otherwise indefensible military action in Iraq. In reality, if one modifies Meyer’s proposition to read this way — the Bush administration is a consistent, committed but pragmatic advocate for democracy in the Middle East — any mythical quality disappears.

Let’s get specific. Where, as in Iraq, no government is in place and the U.S. appears to be in a position to dictate the form of government that will fill the vacuum, the administration opted to insist on democracy. Where, as in Lebanon and the Palestinian areas, the situation is clearly unfavorable to the U.S. but we’re not in control, the administration opted to push for democracy. Where, as in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the situation is not clearly unfavorable to the U.S. particularly compared to likely alternatives, the administration opted to provide mild encouragement of gradual democratic reform.

This policy is consistent. In each instance, the administration tilts towards democracy, with the degree of the tilt dictated by its perception of our ability to control events and the viability of the status quo. Moreover, the commitment, though pragmatic, is real. In each instance, the administration is eschewing the path of least resistance. In Iraq its commitment to democracy dictates a deeper, more bloody involvement than would be necessary if we were indifferent to the form of government that emerges there. In Lebanon and the Palestinian areas, the administration incurs a small risk that an unstable situation will become even less stable. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it incurs a very small risk that an apparently stable situation will become less so.

In short, the administration’s policy in the Middle East is to attempt to promote democracy to just the extent that doing so makes sense in light of facts on the ground. Since these facts vary from situation to situation, so too do the manifestations of our policy.

One can argue that we should not be concerned with promoting democracy at all, or one can argue that the administration is misreading the facts on the ground. But one should not deny that the adminstration has a coherent and rational approach to the matter.

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