John is right that freedom and democracy have advanced since Kirkpatrick wrote her essay in 1979, in no small part due to the collapse of the Soviet empire and Western victory in the Cold War. But I’d point out to you that none of these gains took place in the Middle East or North Africa where there is exactly one free country — Israel — and 78 percent of the countries (and 88 percent of the population) are not free. (I’m using the same Freedom House data.) Kuwait, Lebanon, and Morocco are partly free. Iraq and Afghanistan, beneficiaries of the “freedom agenda,” are not free. So the basic point that creating democracy is difficult remains valid today.
It’s true that U.S. support for autocratic regimes can, like other forms of intervention, inflame anti-American feelings in these countries. It’s equally true that there is a fair amount of anti-American and illiberal sentiment that already exists in these countries that will initially be empowered by elections. Again, we’ve seen Hamas, Hezbollah, and various other Islamist parties win free elections, perhaps soon to be joined by the Muslim Brotherhood.
But my point was never that the United States should either support the autocratic regimes or decline to criticize repression where it is found. I’m simply arguing that we should generally avoid picking winners and losers in other countries’ political disputes, especially in cases where our genuine knowledge is limited and the line of demarcation between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” isn’t clear. It isn’t always 1979, but it isn’t always 1938, 1989 or 1991 either. In some places, 1979 would be an improvement.