As the US primary elections wind down, with some dozen left between April and June, largely absent from the debate has been the matter of democracy in the Middle East.
Even the Bush administration, with democracy as its rhetoric centerpiece, has largely ignored the practical implications of this when dealing with its autocratic Arab allies. Given the rise of Iran in particular, the US has systematically played down human rights abuses and political under-representation, believing now is not the time to embarrass governments whose priority is, like Washington, containment of the Islamic Republic.
Rather than focusing on democracy and how the US can spread its values overseas, the candidates, particularly the Democrats, have started from a premise that American efforts to push its values onto others has harmed America’s image overseas. So, for example, Hillary Clinton argues on her website that “America is stronger when we lead the world through alliances and build our foreign policy on a strong foundation of bipartisan consensus. [I] will lead by the words of the Declaration of Independence, which pledged ‘a decent respect to the opinions of mankind’.”
Barack Obama also supports “bipartisanship” in US foreign policy, but also proposes talking to America’s foes, such as Iran and Syria (unlike the “Bush-Cheney approach to diplomacy that refuses to talk to leaders we don’t like”), and wishes to employ American diplomacy proactively. His campaign website promises, for instance, that he will “stop shuttering consulates and start opening them in the tough and hopeless corners of the world … [Obama] will expand our foreign service, and develop the capacity of our civilian aid workers to work alongside the military.”
There is certainly much to be said about hostility toward the Bush administration around the world. Some of that antagonism may be justified, though one has to wonder whether Iraq factored disproportionately into the thinking of many. After all, Washington has not behaved any more unilaterally than its predecessors when dealing with such crises spots as Lebanon, Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Palestine, Kosovo, even Iraq after the initial phase of the war ended.
Indeed, one might argue that when it came to Iraq, but also Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Kosovo, the Bush administration’s willingness to be hard-nosed made all the difference in liberating previously stifled peoples. It is undeniable that the Iraq war could have been managed infinitely better, savings tens of thousands of lives, and that Afghanistan is far from stabilized; but without the US, Saddam Hussein would still be in power, to the chagrin of a majority of Iraqis, and the Taliban would, similarly, be imposing their mad, medieval designs on Afghans. Few are the Lebanese who regret the Syrians’ departure, and it is largely thanks to American backing that Kosovo’s independence has become a reality.
In contrast, those who speak about “improving America’s image in the world” seem less clear about what this means in practical terms. No doubt being hated is a problem for any country, particularly so powerful a country as the United States that needs to build international coalitions to forward its preferred agendas. But is there any sign that “being loved”, or even just being “liked”, makes much difference globally? Not really. Why is it that Americans alone seem so keen to raise this odd question of affection, when most other states pursue their interests without bothering about whether they are liked or disliked?
What the Bush administration has gotten wrong, and its successor will likely get wrong too, is that the only credible benchmark for global influence is respect, therefore success, not popularity. In focusing on affection as the goal in improving America’s image, policy thinkers ignore that no powerful nation is ever truly liked. America’s condition will not improve because Arabs or Asians tell Pew researchers in a year’s time that they admire America more than today. America’s condition will improve when the foundations of its admired capitalist culture are strengthened. These include a defense of open markets and open minds, a rejection of despotism, and a reliance on the soft power of persuasion and example, in addition to a willingness to use hard power when this proves unavoidable.
To expect the US, or any state, to be absolutely consistent in its behavior is asking too much. Politics doesn’t work that way. But to have no guiding principle to base action on can be almost as damaging as appearing to fail in one’s aims. That’s why the Bush administration has paid so heavily for its efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. It is seen as a loser, whether this view is fair or not.
All the US candidates should remember this when they issue vapid proclamations about America’s image in the world. To be cliché: there is no success like success, particularly in the defense of liberal values. What all the candidates should be doing now is determining whether their foreign policy options will actually meet this standard.