Democracy Promotion and the Obama Doctrine



[The radical left view of democracy promotion]

I am writing in response to and in effort to engage in dialogue with some of my favorite blogs and bloggers who I think are too supportive of president Obama. I am particularly concerned about Obama’s dismissal of democracy promotion as a goal of U.S. foreign policy. I will provide three examples.

Obama has abandoned democracy promotion. The ostensible reason is the previous president, George W. Bush, is so closely associated with this concept and has irretrievably damaged it. As Joshua Muravchik points out in the recent Commentary (“The Abandonment of Democracy” July/August 2009), this perspective, while certainly common on the liberal (and radical) left, is historically inaccurate.

It was actually Jimmy Carter who placed democracy promotion at, if not the center, at least the periphery, of his foreign policy under the rubric of human rights. When Regan came to power in 1980, he was reluctant to continue Carter’s efforts. As Muravchik writes:

At first, Reagan was inclined to eschew human rights as just another part of Jimmy Carter’s wooly-minded liberalism. In an early interview, Secretary of State Alexander Haig announced that the Reagan administration would promote human rights mostly by combating terrorism. But soon Reagan had second thoughts: instead of jettisoning the issue, he put his own distinctive spin on it by shifting the rhetoric and the program to focus more on fostering democracy.

George H.W. Bush followed in the footsteps of Reagan. President Clinton also made democracy promotion a centerpiece of his foreign policy. Liberal pundits often conveniently forget that Clinton was a steadfast advocate of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, a U.S. law that called for regime change in that county.

Obama has made it clear that he values diplomacy and discussion over the promotion of, well, just about anything. On the topic of democracy promotion he is noticeably silent if not opposed to the concept. Example One, witness his vacillation regarding the recent events in Iran.

As Martin Peretz (TNR) notes:

[T]he American people must learn this lesson from the winning “yes, we can” candidate. And this lesson is that we won’t even try when the stakes are as obvious as other people’s decent freedoms. We won’t even cut off trade with Tehran. The smug and cool Brent Scowcroft is now enthroned as the foreign affairs sage of Washington, D.C. Here is what he had to say late last week: U.S. government support for those Iranians who are protesting against electoral results would provoke a more intense crackdown by the government in Tehran. I think he gave the good news to the mullahs over Al Jazeera.

Anne Bayefsky (Forbes) concurs:

This is a man who embodies the opposite of the courage to act. His appalling ignorance of history prompted him to claim at his press conference that “the Iranian people … aren’t paying a lot of attention to what’s being said … here.” On the contrary, from their jail cells in the Gulag, Soviet dissidents took heart from what was being said here–as all dissidents dream that the leader of the free world will be prepared to speak and act in their defense.

The president’s storyline that we don’t know what has transpired in Iran is an insult to the intelligence of both Americans and Iranians. Our absence from the polling booths doesn’t mean the results are a mystery. The rules of the election were quite clear. Candidates for president must be approved by the 12-member Council of Guardians. As reported by the BBC, more than 450 Iranians registered as prospective candidates while four contenders were accepted. All 42 women who attempted to run were rejected. So exactly what part of rigged does President Obama not understand?

Instead of denouncing the fake election, President Obama now tells Iranians who are dying for the real thing “the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Whose sovereignty is that? The Hobbesian sovereign thugs running the place? Sovereignty to do what? To deny rights and freedoms to their own people? In a state so bereft of minimal protections for human dignity, why should the sovereignty of such a government be paramount?

Example Two, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) recently gave its annual Democracy Award to a group of Cuban activists, primarily Afro-Cuban dissidents. Obama refused to meet with their representatives in the U.S., instead preferring to profess his desire to transcend the barriers of ideology between the two countries.

From the NED website:

For fifty years the people of Cuba have been denied basic political, social, and economic freedoms. Today we recognize the courage and sacrifice of five activists who are determined to reclaim those freedoms for their country. Our honorees represent the broad and vibrant spectrum of opinion and activism in Cuba today. All five are relatively young, in their 30s and 40s; three are Afro-Cuban; one is a Christian Democrat and another is a Social Democrat; one is a trade unionist and another is a women’s leader. They are united in their commitment to democratic values, a philosophy of non-violence, and the goal of a free Cuba.

Their personal sacrifices are humbling: Ferrer, Linares, and Carrillo are in prison, arrested in the 2003 “Black Spring” crackdown on democratic activists. Their combined sentences total 70 years. Antúnez himself was imprisoned for 17 years until his release in 2007.

Perez has lived under constant harassment and now, with her husband Antúnez, is under house arrest, separated from her 14 year-old son. Despite solitary confinement, beatings, the denial of medical care, and separation from family, all five have persisted in their cause, countering their oppressors with hunger strikes and organizing for the support of other political prisoners.

Antúnez has written, “Peaceful action disarms oppressors in a moral sense. They may impede some action, but never the spirit or the goal that propels these activities.” Today we proudly stand in solidarity with these five in their struggle, confident that their dream of Cuba Libre will be realized.

Another telling glimpse of the Obama doctrine concerns the so-called “coup” in Honduras, my third example. In that country, President Manuel Zelaya was attempting to push a presidential referendum that would have allowed him to run for another term. Honduran specialists note that Zelaya was attempting to move the country down the path that was blazed by Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chavez i.e. weaken and subvert the constitution and rule of law so that he could attempt to become president for life.

When Zelaya tried to unilaterally call for a referendum, he was informed by the legislative branch that they would have to approve such a referendum before the public was able to vote one way or another. This is part of the country’s constitution. Zelaya attempted to circumvent the congress and take it straight to the voters but the Supreme Court informed him this was illegal under Honduran law.

Zelaya flaunted the legislative and judicial branch and had ballots, printed in Venezuela, flown into Honduras. At that point, the Supreme Court said “enough is enough” and requested the military take action. So this was not a coup d’état, at least not in the sense that I know the term. In a typical coup d’état, especially the Latin American variety, the military seizes the institutions of government (legislative, executive, judicial) or abolishes one or more. In this case, the president was calling for a subversion of the institutions of democratic government while the military defended those institutions.

Mary Anastasia O’Grady (WSJ) writes:

That Mr. Zelaya acted as if he were above the law, there is no doubt. While Honduran law allows for a constitutional rewrite, the power to open that door does not lie with the president. A constituent assembly can only be called through a national referendum approved by its Congress.

But Mr. Zelaya declared the vote on his own and had Mr. Chávez ship him the necessary ballots from Venezuela. The Supreme Court ruled his referendum unconstitutional, and it instructed the military not to carry out the logistics of the vote as it normally would do.

The top military commander, Gen. Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, told the president that he would have to comply. Mr. Zelaya promptly fired him. The Supreme Court ordered him reinstated. Mr. Zelaya refused.

Calculating that some critical mass of Hondurans would take his side, the president decided he would run the referendum himself. So on Thursday he led a mob that broke into the military installation where the ballots from Venezuela were being stored and then had his supporters distribute them in defiance of the Supreme Court’s order.

The attorney general had already made clear that the referendum was illegal, and he further announced that he would prosecute anyone involved in carrying it out. Yesterday, Mr. Zelaya was arrested by the military and is now in exile in Costa Rica.

Rather than side with democratic institutions and the rule of law in Honduras, our president declared the state’s actions “illegal” and had Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claim, “We call on all parties in Honduras to respect the constitutional order and the rule of law, to reaffirm their democratic vocation, and to commit themselves to resolve political disputes peacefully and through dialogue”.

These statements were made less than a day after the so-called coup. Compare that to the long week of violence it took for Obama’s administration to condemn what was happening in Iran.

What these three examples show, a mere six months into Obama’s first term, is a severe break with the continuity in foreign policy of the past two decades,  a break with democracy promotion as a foreign policy goal of the United States. This is the change many Americans voted for. But is it the sort of change you really believe in?


Roland (But, I am a Liberal!) Dodds: Miller and Kagan on the Obama Doctrine

Excellent roundup of the events in Honduras at Fausta’s blog.

Rick Richman:  Zelaya, Honduras and Obama

Sultan Knish: Obama, a Profile in Cowardice

Ken Timmerman: Obama Erases Pro-Democracy Money for Iran

Paul Wolfowitz: Obama and the Freedom Agenda (h/t to Roland)

5 responses »

  1. Pingback: Democracy Promotion and the Obama Doctrine « The New Centrist | Cuba today

  2. The difference between the US’s stern words in response to the Honduran crisis and its placid response to the Iranian uprising was very telling of the Administration’s political outlook.

    In the case of Iran, while thousands of my compatriots were being beaten, jailed, tortured, and killed, Mr. Obama, et al spent a week issuing statements like “we are still assessing the situation” and “we are impressed by the vigorous debate unfolding in Iran” – what vigorous debate indeed: an electric baton to the face can be pretty persuasive after all. Mr. Obama did eventually release a worthwhile statement. But it was written, and it appeared seven hours after the really brutal phase of the clampdown following Khamenei’s sermon had begun.

    So yes, I’m troubled by the retreat from democracy promotion.

  3. A good piece TNC, sorry it took so long to respond and ad my two cents.

    I agree that the Obama administration has abandoned parts of democracy promotion as a US policy, and I find that troubling. Obama’s initial comments on the Iranian uprising were sad to hear and see, although I think he eventually got around to saying the right thing. In an attempt to not appear the ugly American or some gallivanting cowboy, Obama took a directionless position.

    The most troubling thing I see in Obama’s approach to world affairs in general is his willingness to maintain a status quo, even when it is to the detriment of liberalism and democracy as well as American national interests. His positions on Honduras and Iran are similar in that both changed the relationship and diplomatic strategy the US would have to take to deal with said nations, and the President seemed unwilling to accept or support such changes.

    However, I believe there may still be aspects of democracy promotion that the Obama administration may take on if they can be persuaded into adopting a few key positions. I am writing a piece right now about democracy promotion and the current administration, and there may be practical and necessary policies for the government to engage in, that while not as forceful as the Bush and Clinton years, can produce positive results and leave a lasting impact, and yet contribute to the ‘status quo’ in world politics the administrations seems eager to uphold. Specifically in Africa, where the Freedom House 2009 report showed setbacks in states that were on the democratic track. If the Obama administration can commit the United States to supporting new democratic regimes in that region that could lapse into less free systems, there may still be positive results from the Obama administration’s “realism.”

  4. I agree with Roland that this Obama’s desire for maintaining the status quo, or as you put it his preference for dialogue over just about anything, is highly problematic. However, I also agree with Roland that there is still hope. On example one, it seems to me the case that Obama moved to a better position. I think he was also correct to be more cautious over Iran, because of the much larger geopolitical stakes involved in confrontation with Iran. I also genuinely do not know what the best way for the American state to actually concretely promote democracy in Iran would be. It is clear to me that military involvement, for example, is not a good option at the moment, but what other option would make any real difference? In relation to Iran, it seems to me that GW Bush – and more generally the incompetent way in which we have prosecuted the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq – have indeed poisoned the well, as it were, for meaningful intervention in the region.

    On example 3, I still disagree with you, because, although I see Zelaya’s model of democracy as flawed, the coup is an even more flawed model. I will go and read your comments on the relevant post, though, before saying any more than that.

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