A distinction with little difference

Robert Kaplan argues against “forcing democracy upon people.” He contends that

[W]here it involves despotic regimes [other than the former Iraqi one] in the [Middle East] — none of which is nearly as despotic as Hussein’s — the last thing we should do is actively precipitate their demise. The more organically they evolve and dissolve, the less likely it is that blood will flow. . . .
Globalization and other dynamic forces will continue to rid the world of dictatorships. Political change is nothing we need to force upon people; it’s something that will happen anyway. What we have to work toward — for which peoples with historical experiences different from ours will be grateful — is not democracy but normality. Stabilizing newly democratic regimes, and easing the development path of undemocratic ones, should be the goal for our military and diplomatic establishments. The more cautious we are in a world already in the throes of tumultuous upheaval, the more we’ll achieve.

Kaplan’s rhetoric is very different than the Bush administration’s. However, I’m not sure that the difference translates significantly into policy disagreements. The Bush administration is not “actively trying to precipitate the demise” of undemocratic regimes in places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Nor has it “forced” democracy on any state other than those in which it toppled regimes for other reasons. Indeed, Kaplan fully supports the administration’s action in Afghanistan, arguing that we didn’t topple a state, only a movement. And Kaplan believes that in Iraq, the state we toppled was “a form of anarchy masquerading as tyranny.” He concludes that “the decision to remove [Saddam] was defensible, while not providential.”
I think Saddam’s ouster may well prove to be providential. But my present point is that the practical difference between Kaplan’s classically conservative view and the supposedly hardline neo-conservatism of the administration probably is not substantial.


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