Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

The Security/Democracy Paradox…in American Defense Policy

Posted in U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy by Dan on August 7, 2009

purple finger

Throughout our nation’s history, Washington has trained Americans of all creeds, races, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds to pledge their full-hearted support towards the fundamental principles of western democracy.  Individual civil liberties should be defended from government interference, all the while expanded to include new freedoms that would otherwise be frowned upon in authoritarian political systems.  The philosophy of the free market, guided by the powerful forces of greed, profit, wealth, and private exchange, is to be the primary economic model of the western world…taking its rightful place in the American psyche for the improvement of U.S. wealth and prosperity.  Civilians from coast to coast are theoretically equal under national, state, and local law…a free and fair judicious code of conduct endorsed by the most influential personalities in the United States.  In addition, tolerance, diversity, free speech, and cultural heterogeneity should be praised by all elements in the public and private sector: an essential derivative of democracy that will improve understanding between all walks of life on this planet.

With the rights outlined above often taken-for-granted by Americans and Europeans alike, it has become a paradoxical phenomenon that the leaders of the western community have been reluctant to advance these very same tenants of democracy overseas.  One can certainly argue that the sole purpose of the U.S.-led military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq were based on the freedom agenda…a quest to dispose the international community of the most brutal and repressive regimes.  Toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan and overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq, at least in the first few-months of the operation, was frequently cited by neoconservatives and liberals alike as an ideological crusade by Washington in the hopes of introducing democratic politics to tens of millions of Muslims.

Without a doubt, Afghans in 2001 and Iraqis in 2003 were taking these same exact beliefs to heart, celebrating the arrival of American troops with jubilation and tears of joy in their eyes.  The same people that experienced a continuous cycle of political persecution and economic deprivation were finally hopeful for the future…viewing the U.S. Military as a catalyst that would quickly transform their respective societies for the better.  To the happiness of our nation’s Founding Fathers, the hopeful light of democracy seemed to be gaining new supporters in areas that were previously off-limits to free-markets, civil rights, and secular politics.

Unfortunately to democratic idealists across the political spectrum, this U.S. foreign-policy has been replaced by a more traditional reliance of international security and balance-of-power theory.  The task of rebuilding Iraq into the first true legitimate democracy in the heart of the Middle East has been scrapped from Washington’s plans…molded into a more realistic policy designed to protect the young Baghdad Government from the deadly effects of Islamic insurgency and Sunni-Shia-Kurd civil war.  The original campaign of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan- improving the economic and political rights of ordinary Afghans- is now regarded by the U.S. Military as an overstretched goal.  With the Taliban insurgency continuing to make its presence known in Southern Afghanistan, and with the Al’Qaeda terrorist network strengthening its operations in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, President Barack Obama has rightfully decided to place security at the top of America’s list of objectives.  Denying Al’Qaeda a safe-haven in Afghanistan is now the administration’s reformed strategy.   Giving up on the prospects for a functional democratic state inside the mountainous Islamic country is viewed as a necessary sacrifice for achieving this new “Af-Pak” goal.

All of these transformations are especially disheartening for a large composition of the American electorate, some of whom believe that the United States has a moral responsibility to pursue democratic governance in all ways, shapes, and forms.  Others take a different approach, arguing that America’s decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq is a new front in Washington’s desire for western imperialism and cultural superiority.  Acknowledging that each perspective has its supporters, we must not bypass the fact that security in the 21st century may be just as important for U.S. national interests as the imposition of democracy in a turbulent region of the globe.  In an age where terrorism and violent Islamic fundamentalism dominates the foreign-policy process, combating destabilizing forces in the Middle East may be precisely what is needed for a sense of relief in this country.

History proves that the imposition of democracy may actually have a blowback effect for a state’s national-security.  How many times in the past has a democratic government collapsed by intrastate forces, either by a military coup or the outbreak of sectarian and civil warfare?  Just this past month, the pseudo-democracy in Honduras became a victim of the country’s armed-forces…frightening the president into exile the country as his society was quickly transforming to a militaristic state.  In this case, the emergence of democracy hindered the overall goals of U.S.-policy towards Latin America: ensuring that Washington’s economic interests are protected and sustained in an otherwise hostile area.  Now with insecurity thriving in Central America, President Obama’s plans for improved relations are obstructed at best.  Perhaps by focusing exclusively in security terms (as the United States is currently doing in Afghanistan and Iraq), U.S. interests could have been salvaged.

During the Cold War, the United States took a strict-approach of containment…using all of its diplomatic and military tools to obstruct the Soviet Union’s expansion into Western Europe, Latin America, and Asia.  For approximately 50 years, the U.S. Government decided to support repressive authoritarian regimes in the hopes that these countries would fight back communist sentiment.  The whole reason why the oppressive Shah of Iran (Reza Pahlavi) remained in power for a good quarter-century was due to America’s unending support for his efforts in combating Soviet influence in the Middle East.  Military Governments in Latin America, although performing atrocities to their own people, were able to exert control for so long because their interests paralleled with Washington…supporting the U.S. effort to destroy communism in all its disguises.

Eighteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Washington continues to place democracy secondary to regional stability.  Today, the main reason why the United States does not pressure internal political reform in both Saudi Arabia and Egypt is because of Riyadh and Cairo’s inherent value in the War on Terrorism.  The Saudi Royal Family and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, although autocrats who routinely destroy democratic movements within their own societies, are tolerated by the United States and its allies for their skepticism regarding Iran and Syria’s alliance in the Middle East.  Although Saudi Arabia remains one of the most corrupt and repressive political systems in the world, the Royal Family continues to receive billions in U.S. military aid for its cooperation in terrorism matters…only reasserting the conclusion that security is paramount to democracy in an era of asymmetrical warfare.

The United States must use every tool at its disposal to advance the interests of Washington and those of our allies.  Democracy, while loved by all Americans, may not be the most useful policy in this endeavor.  If we are truly genuine in our attempts to promote American hegemony in the world (a policy that both Republican and Democratic presidents have embraced over the past 50 years), providing a stable environment in sensitive areas may be the best bet.  This course of action would not only eliminate the resurgence of Al’Qaeda in Afghanistan and the remnants of Islamic insurgency in Iraq…it would forcefully demonstrate to America’s foes that any threat will be targeted by an equally harsh response.  Who knows…perhaps the potential for representative democracy will follow?

-Daniel R. DePetris

-An article from Jonathan Schell of The Nation was the rationale for this blog.  Schell’s full article- titled “The Case Against the War-“was originally published in March 3, 2003 in The Nation.


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