The Spectacle Blog

Who Abandoned Democracy Promotion?

By on 12.1.10 | 4:09PM

Michael Brendan Dougherty has a piece at Newsweek.com, hooked to the WikiLeaks dump, arguing that "America's democracy agenda is over." And while it's true that the Obama administration has turned away from Bush-era democracy-promoting policies on many fronts -- as I and others sympathetic to the "forward strategy of freedom" have repeatedly argued -- what's peculiar about Michael's piece is that the words "Obama administration" never appear. He simply asserts, citing documents that are all 2009-vintage, that "the Wikileaks dump has shown that history is unkind to the demanding visions of ideologues" -- he means democracy advocates -- as if the policies of the current administration (or, in the case of one document, of a group of Senators visiting Syria that included longtime Assad regime-apologist Arlen Specter) are a force of nature unrelated to policymakers' preferences. Which is odd, because he has no trouble naming Bush-era policymakers.

This is really all window-dressing, though, for an attack he's trying to make on commentators pointing to revelations of Arab enthusiasm for attacks on Iran -- especially David Frum, whose take on Wikileaks I noted the other day. Michael thinks he's caught Frum et al. abandoning their (our) pro-democracy principles and aligning with Arab autocrats: "The democratists once hoped to get out from under the venal Saudis, but a shared zeal against Iran has yoked them together." This misses the point, though. Quite a few writers have repeatedly argued that it was some sort of fantasy that Arab leaders were fearful enough of the Islamic Republic to favor airstrikes on nuclear facilities, and that Israel is the mover behind all hawkish opinion on this topic. They have been proven wrong. It doesn't necessarily follow that bombing Iran is a good idea (I tend to suspect that covert sabotage is having the effect of delaying Iran's progress on the nuclear front while averting the risks that airstrikes entail), but it does strengthen the straightforward case that a more powerful Iran is a serious threat.

There's a caricature underlying all this, that democratists must be against allying with non-democracies at all times. But of course it is possible to ally with an authoritarian government while nudging it in the direction of liberalization. The Obama administration has been noticeably worse at this than the Bush adminstration. I would suggest that the blame for this lies with the Obama administration.

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