President Bush's Global Democracy Efforts

Joshua Muravchik
Member, State Department's Advisory Committee on Democracy Promotion
Tuesday, August 21, 2007; 1:00 PM

American Enterprise Institute scholar Joshua Muravchik, a member of the State Department's Advisory Committee on Democracy Promotion, was online Tuesday, Aug. 21 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the Bush administration's efforts to spread democracy and the roadblocks that have stalled or prevented their success.

As Democracy Push Falters, Bush Feels Like a 'Dissident' (Post, Aug. 20)

The transcript follows.

Muravchik is an AEI resident scholar, an adjunct professor at the Institute of World Politics and the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, and the author of " Exporting Democracy: Fulfilling America's Destiny" and several other books.


Washington: The Bush Administration's commitment to pursuing democracy is frequently measured in its public criticism of authoritarian regimes. To what extent are quiet diplomatic efforts and assistance to democracy activists substituting for such criticism? How effective are these efforts at pressuring regimes to improve human rights and build democratic institutions?

Joshua Muravchik: Hi, this is Joshua. I'm starting from here. Thanks for your questions.

This is a very good one. The problem with public criticism is that, while it is important, it also often bumps up against other diplomatic goals. Quiet diplomacy is necessary, but I don't think it is very effective. The most important thing is to give our support to indigenous democrats as strongly and effectively as possible -- with material support when they are willing to accept it, with moral support, and by raising hell when they get locked up.


Seattle: I'd like to get your response to what bugs me about the idea of "democracy promotion" in this administration: Our allies in the 'war on terror' tend to be heavily undemocratic -- Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, etc. -- and they are helping us in our efforts largely so we will turn a blind eye to their suppression of democracy. What are your thoughts?

Joshua Muravchik: We had an analogous problem in the Cold War. We called our side the "free world," and there was a basic truth to that. But we also had key allies who were unfree, e.g. Portugal in NATO.

We have put some pressure for reform in the places you mention, but it has been half-hearted. There is no easy answer to these questions -- we have to walk a fine line, and we should avoid hypocrisy as much as we can. That means at least speaking honestly about the lack of freedom in these countries


Keyport, N.J.: Sir: In his televised speech on the one year anniversary of 9/11 from Ground Zero, President Bush said: "There is a line -- in our time and in every time -- between those who believe that all men are created equal and those who believe that some men and women and children are expendable in the pursuit of power." Have we as a nation crossed that line in the "war on terror," and can we foster democracy while undermining our own goals with actions like rendition and suspension of habeas corpus?

Joshua Muravchik: This also is to No. 1. There always will be infringements of liberty in wartime. The greatest triumphs for human rights in modern times, if not in all history, were the Allied victory against the Axis in World War II, and the West's victory in the Cold War. Yet in both of these there were grave infringements of liberty along the way. In U.S. history, the greatest victory for human rights was the North's victory in the Civil War, in which we infringed liberty and rights grievously.

The depredations thus far in the war against terror have been very small-bore. There are once again huge stakes for human rights in the outcome of this war.


Silver Spring, Md.: The Post's article mentioned the challenge of the career State staff not wanting to do what the president wanted -- I believe the quote was something to the effect that policy wasn't what the president said but what was agreed to in interagency working groups. Are all State employees so elitist to think they don't serve the interests of the administration? And how, realistically, do you address this issue? Thanks!

Joshua Muravchik: It is true that career officials sometimes feel as though the elected officials under whom they serve are short-term, naive nuisances.

But I don't think this is the real problem. In the long run America has had tremendous influence in spreading democracy in the world -- but when you pose the question "how can we turn country X into a democracy in the near term?" there is no answer. The best we can do -- and what I ardently believe we should do -- is throw a bunch of democracy-promotion programs on the wall and see what sticks. It is much more a problem of not knowing what to do than of bad faith by bureaucrats.


Arlington, Va.: Does Bush's black/white, good/evil world view not comport with reality? It's one thing to talk about ideals and put people into little boxes, but reality has a way of being much more complicated than that. While democracy is good goal, it's not perfect as it is practiced by real people in this country and others around the world. The article mentioned the Thai coup as an example of a step backward, but in that case you had a corrupt -- albeit democratically elected -- government that rapidly was consolidating its power and installing cronies and family members in key positions to hold power and amass more wealth. At the same time it was providing some programs like cheap health care and education that proved very popular with many people. So, on the one hand they were doing some good things, but on the other they were rewarding friends with no-bid contracts and paying for substandard work (e.g. the new airport) and they were getting away with the bad stuff because the oversight agencies were full of loyalists not interested in being a check or balance. (Sort of like the Republican Congress.) Not totally evil, but not totally good either. How can such complex realities be handled?

Joshua Muravchik: I think you conflate two issues -- no, democracy does not guarantee good governance (it just makes it a heck of a lot more likely), so a mild public-minded authoritarian regime might sometimes do better than a messy, corrupt democratic one. But on the other hand, the good-evil thing is real. Communism, Nazism and Islamofascism are all genuinely evil forces that need to be fought with all our strength.

Yes, of course our own system is imperfect. All human beings and all of life is imperfect. But between our democratic ways and the ways of these death-dealing monstrosities, it does amount to a black vs. white contest.


St. Paul, Minn.: Given that the removal of Saddam has almost universal approval, what should be done differently in the aftermath next time we decide on a regime change? Please speculate on what difference those steps might have made in the Iraq situation, 2002-2007.

Joshua Muravchik: There are many regimes that might be replaced to the benefit of their own subjects, world peace and U.S. interests. However I don't believe we should pursue regime change by means of war, except where the regime in question is itself engaged in -- or threatening to engage in -- aggression. Otherwise, regime-change is something we have to pursue by peaceful political and economic means.


Niles, Mich.: What can you tell me about Democracy and positive relations with its rulers in Burma/Myanmar and how efforts in this south Asian country fit other regional efforts? Thanks for taking early questions at this online forum.

Joshua Muravchik: I don't think the U.S. has any positive relations with the military dictatorship of Burma. I have heard President Bush denounce that regime in several of his speeches.


Hartford, Conn.: What is your reaction when democracy is accepted, yet that democracy elects a government we don't like? What if terrorists win an election, or fascists win an election, or communists win an election? What should our policies be towards encouraging a continuation of democracy when the elected governments are one our government does not like?

Joshua Muravchik: This is a good question and a tough one.

I believe our policy should be that we will accept any electoral outcome, so long as the winners don't themselves shut down the democratic system and prevent future elections. But how do we achieve this? There is no way to guarantee it, but we should put that question in bright lights by means of our diplomatic actions from day one of the new government.

However, accepting the outcome of an election does not mean that we are obliged to give the winners our money. When Hamas triumphed in Palestine it was in no way undemocratic for us to say: Okay, you won, but we are not going to assist you unless you commit to peace.


Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.:"The depredations thus far in the war against terror have been very small-bore. There are once again huge stakes for human rights in the outcome of this war." But, once we start taking away basic liberties doesn't that partially provide a "win" for the terrorists, if you will?

Joshua Muravchik: Did the bombing of Dresden provide a "win" for Hitler? Did Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus provide a "win" for the Confederacy? I don't think so.


Harrisburg, Pa.: What are your thoughts about the government in Sudan, and whether there should be a regime change because of genocide, and whether a regime change could be kept to one that does not support terrorism?

Joshua Muravchik: Sudan is not only a country with a rotten government -- it is a failed state, and has been embroiled in various north-south civil wars as long as I can remember. I think our goals there have to be pretty modest; stopping the slaughter in Darfur is enough of a goal for now, and even that has been beyond the will of the international community for years already.


Sewickley, Pa.: If Islamofascism is as serious a threat as folks like you make it out to be, it seems to me that the entire country and what is left of its industrial base should have been put on a real war-footing in order to fight it. Instead we have the sad situation of the military having to raise the age limit on new recruits to over 40. Do you think Americans will join the military to promote democracy abroad?

Joshua Muravchik: I don't think it is a matter of joining the U.S. military to spread democracy but rather to defend our country. We have cut the military far too much since the end of the Cold War. It is absurd that we are struggling to maintain just over 150,000 soldiers in the war zone. Our population is 300 million. This means one soldier for every 2,000 Americans. What's up with that?


Pittsburgh: Elevating the promotion of democracy abroad to the status of national policy seems somewhat ludicrous to me. We tend to like certain democracies and not others. We cozy up to anti-democratic regimes when it's in our best interest to do so and we castigate other despotic regimes when they are irrelevant to our security. It seems to me that such a policy is destined to make us look like foolish hypocrites. Your thoughts?

Joshua Muravchik: In almost all political analysis the essential question is proportion. Yes, we have cozied up to certain anti-democratic regimes and yes, our preferences are sometimes uneven. But on the whole, here is the main trend: democracies are far more peaceful and more friendly to the U.S. than dictatorships, they are more beneficial to their own citizens, and the U.S. tends to have much better relationships with democracies and to be more generous toward them and more willing to extend itself in order to protect them.


Rockville, Md.: How can Bush administration defend its stance on democracy and do everything in its powers to undermine the democratically elected Hamas government in Gaza? Maybe to delusional neocon supporters, the Bush administration may seem committed to democracy; but to the rest of the sane world, they come across as extreme hypocrites.

Joshua Muravchik: I already touched on this. We did not block Hamas from forming a government; but we do not owe them a living. We said we would help them if they committed to peace. They have refused. Then, Hamas itself overthrew its own government by staging an armed coup in Gaza. If there is any hypocrisy in this story it is on the part of Hamas, which demanded the benefits of an elected party but acted like a bunch of armed thugs.


Bush not an Eisenhower Republican: Recent Los Angeles Times op-ed by Michael Korda: "Being more like Ike: The 34th president and ex-general delivered eight years of peace because he knew when a war was unwinnable."

Ike's the one who presciently warned us about the military industrial complex (and other things like fascism and totalitarianism coming in other guises). Halliburton anyone? Just how far have these people fallen from Goldwater and Eisenhower? And it's not just the Republicans -- I used to be a Republican myself.

Joshua Muravchik: The Korean war may have been unwinnable after the People's Republic of China sent its immense army across the Yalu River, because we couldn't easily match what they could deploy on the ground near their home.

The Iraq war has not been won, but that doesn't mean it is unwinnable. It is pretty apparent that we made a horrible error in sending so few soldiers, and even the small increase of recent months seems to have made a difference.

Ike's oft-quoted phrase about a "military-industrial complex" has no clear meaning -- in the same speech he also warned against an academic-intellectual complex. It was a silly speech that was kept alive by the defense-cutters throughout the Cold War. The Cold War's ending, as a result of Reagan's muscular policies, proved them wrong. It's way past time to bury this old saw.


Green Bay, Wis.: Lincoln came to regret suspending habeas corpus before the Civil War ended, and reinstated it. You left that little fact out of your previous answer.

Joshua Muravchik: Perhaps, but there were far greater human rights abuses committed by Union forces in their march to the sea and elsewhere. In retrospect, those things might have been done differently.

Perhaps some of the infringements of rights in the current war could be done differently. If criticism is offered from the perspective of making the war on terror more effective, I am all for it. If it is offered as a means of opposing the war against terrorism, then I give it little credit.


Rockville, Md.: Denying aid money to the Hamas government is not undemocratic. But pressuring banks to not deal with the Hamas government and cutting it off the international financial system so that it can't pay its employees is very undemocratic. Didn't expect a two-faced lying AEI resident scholar to admit that.

Joshua Muravchik: I think you need a basic course in civil discourse and elementary courtesy. You might start by a careful daily reading of The Washington Post's "Miss Manners" column.


Washington: An AEI resident scholar, can you tell me how many Iraqi civilians have died since Saddam Hussein was deposed, and how many Iraqis are currently living as refugees in foreign countries? Thank you.

Joshua Muravchik: No, I don't know the numbers. Can you tell me how many Iraqis died during Saddam's reign? How many sought refuge abroad? How many Kuwaitis and Iranians died in the wars of aggression he launched?

The war in Iraq might or might not have been a wise policy, but I don't think your question gets us very far toward deciding that.


Re: War-time Infringements: I have some trouble with the idea that we can accept infringements in the current 'war' because the war is largely undefined. How will we know when we win? Will it ever be over? Also, how do we know the extent of the infringements when they are kept secret from the public? The Civil War saw the North suspend habeas corpus, but it was open about it. Same thing with the camps in World War II.

Joshua Muravchik: We can measure the frequency of terrorist attacks in the world, and we have some ways of assessing the strength of al-Qaeda and other terror groups. Perhaps more important, we will be able to observe a decisive turn of the Muslim world toward anathematizing terrorists instead of the ambivalence too often observable today. That would include the end of state support for terrorists.

Rest assured, there were actions taken by our presidents in World War II and in the Cold War that were secret, and some of these secrets remain so to this day. We may not know everything about secret renditions, etc. But we do know that political discourse in our country has not been infringed or narrowed by a single millimeter. We also have not seen a single case in which a credible accusation was brought that the current extraordinary police powers have been abused by any official for extraneous purposes.


"What's up with that?": Well why don't you lead us, Josh? Quit your cushy political appointee gig, and sign right up at the recruiting station? Again, I doubt you'll have the integrity to respond to this.

Joshua Muravchik: You didn't have the integrity to refrain from asking it.

If you want to know, I called the recruiting station during the first Gulf war, 16 years ago, and a polite lady told me in a kind voice that I was far too old. Do you think they would want me now?


Arlington, Va.: You said: "Yes, democracy does not guarantee good governance (it just makes it a heck of a lot more likely). So, a mild public-minded authoritarian regime might sometimes do better than a messy, corrupt democratic one." Why not promote good governance instead of democracy? It seems to me that a mild, public-minded authoritarian regime cannot improve its governance without eventually becoming more democratic. If so, then it would seem that rewarding good governance would have the side-effect of increasing democratization over time.

Joshua Muravchik: As limited as our knowledge is of how to foster democracy, it is actually better than our knowledge of how to pick good dictators. There are loads of dictators, and only a tiny fraction can be said to rule beneficently. Even if you spot a guy who makes you think, "hey, he'd make a great dictator," you run up against Lord Acton's problem about power corrupting.


Lyme, Conn.: What is the policy of the State Department towards using more humanitarian assistance to win international respect? More specifically, when will we put a greater focus on rebuilding the infrastructure of Iraq? I know we have made a lot of efforts in that direction, yet a lot remains to be done.

Joshua Muravchik: As I understand, we've been trying like heck, and spending accordingly, to rebuild infrastructure -- but the efforts have been undermined by lack of security and sabotage. Perhaps with Petraeus's new strategy we have begun providing the needed security in some places.


Munich, Germany: I read a Washington Post article a while back that mentioned a democracy fund that some critics maintained had raised ire in the foreign countries it was intended to help. I believe that the main point of conflict was with Russia and the former Soviet Republics. Was it the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine that had turned Putin against NGOs promoting democracy in Russia, or was there a conflict there beforehand? After replacing Yeltsin, Putin appeared to be a friend of democracy, but then he started shutting down the free press. Was there some other specific event that changed Putin's outlook on democracy?

Joshua Muravchik: Putin worked from day one to march Russia back from the road to democracy and restore dictatorship and national "grandeur." There is no reason to object to small grants from abroad to civil society groups except that they challenge the move to impose a new dictatorship.


Princeton, W.Va.: When will our government withdraw US/AID from countries such as Egypt that promotes human rights violations, as proven by their condoned actions of human rights violations perpetrated upon Egyptian citizens by their brutal police force?

Joshua Muravchik: Using aid cuts for pressure is tricky. Once you've done it, what do you do next?

In the 1970s we started to cut aid to Guatemala for solid reasons about human rights abuses. The military rulers there, said: "screw you, we won't take any more aid from you." They then proceeded to win their civil war by means of far more dramatic abuses, including mass murder of indigenous people. The answers, alas, are not so easy.


Anonymous: If a person thought your tactics of military intervention and bellicose rhetoric in the "War on Terror" were counterproductive and actively harmful to the safety and prosperity of the U.S. and her citizens, and argued that was the case, can we presume you would characterize that as "opposing the war on terrorism"?

Joshua Muravchik: If a person says we should not have invaded Iraq, but we should fight a war against terror with great strength and determination including political, intelligence, economic and sometimes military means, then they are obviously not against the war on terror.

If, on the other hand, they say -- as George Soros, for one, has said -- that we should treat terror as criminality to be fought by means of law enforcement, then they are against the war on terror.


Princeton, N.J.: Suppose we define terrorism as the indiscriminate killing of civilians to sap the will of a people to fight. Then it is clear that the greatest acts of terrorism in history (or at least since Tamerlane) were the firebombings of Tokyo and Dresden and the dropping of two atomic bombs. Thus we all are terrorists. In a discussion, however, when one side calls the other terrorists all discussion ends. It simply is not fruitful to label your enemies as terrorists, Nazis or Fascists if you want them to act in a way favorable to your side.

Joshua Muravchik: This is silly. There are endless debates about the Allies' bombing tactics in fighting a defensive war against the most barbarous aggressors.

Today, however, the U.S. and other civilized countries do not deliberately target civilians. The folks we are fighting do. If you can't tell the difference between the people detonating car bombs in markets and mosques and the soldiers performing the traditional roles of soldiers, then you are squeezing your eyes or mind very tightly shut.


Joshua Muravchik: I tried to answer every question posed, but new ones keep popping up. I must stop now. Thanks for the opportunity.


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