It’s Not About Democracy

According to the new National Security Strategy of the United States of America promulgated in March 2006:

“It is the policy of the United States to seek and support democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world. In the world today, the fundamental character of regimes matter as much as the distribution of power among them. The goal of our statecraft is to help create a world of democratic, well-governed states that can meet the needs of their citizens and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system. This is the best way to provide enduring security for the American people.”

Thus, the Bush administration has explicitly linked democracy in the world to U.S. national security rather than in terms of countries with hostile intentions and military capabilities that directly threaten America. Instead, the mere existence of undemocratic nations pose a threat to America’s security. But are we truly insecure because a military government exists in Burma? And there are at least 50 countries in the world that do not have democratically elected governments. Does that mean that there are 50 countries that are threats to the United States? Even so-called democratic countries – such as Egypt, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela – are democratic largely in name only.

The reality is that what the Bush administration calls a national security strategy is really a global security strategy based on “promoting freedom, justice, and human dignity – working to end tyranny, to promote effective democracies, and to extend prosperity through free and fair trade and wise development policies.” But this is a false belief that the best and only way to achieve U.S. security is by forcibly creating a better and safer world in America’s image.

The notion that the United States can be made more secure by spreading freedom and democracy around the world is based on two assumptions. The first assumption, that democratic nations are peaceful countries, is rooted in the post-World War II reconstruction of West Germany and Japan because the two former members of the Axis were transformed from being America’s mortal enemies to being close allies and economic trading partners. According to professor R.J. Rummel at the University of Hawaii, between 1816 and 1991 there were 353 wars and none of them were between two stable democracies.

Although there may be a certain amount of truth to this logic, it is not necessarily true that all future democracies will be friendly to the United States – especially democracies in Muslim countries. For example, if completely free and popular elections were held in Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, the resulting governments would likely be anti-American. Even a supporter of President Bush’s democratic nation-building policy – Reuel Marc Gerecht at the American Enterprise Institute – admits that democracy in Arab and Muslim countries is not likely to be pro-American:

“[T]he march of democracy in the Middle East is likely to be very anti-American. Decades of American support to Middle Eastern dictators helped create bin Ladenism. Popular anger at Washington’s past actions may not fade quickly, even if the United States were to switch sides and defend openly all the parties calling for representative government. Nationalism and fundamentalism, two complementary forces throughout most of the Middle East, will likely pump up popular patriotism. Such feelings always have a sharp anti-Western edge to them.”

So the notion of spreading democracy in the Middle East is a case of “be careful what you wish for” where the ensuing result is likely to be worse than the current situation, however unsatisfying.

The second assumption is that the United States is hated for “who we are” and that democratic countries would not have a reason to hate us and breed terrorism. In his address to a joint session of Congress and the American people after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush said:

“Why do they hate us? They hate what we see right here in this chamber – a democratically elected government. They hate our freedoms – our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”

Certainly, suicide terrorists who fly airplanes into buildings do hate the United States. But it would be misleading to assume that such hatred is the primary reason and motivation for terrorism against the United States. Throughout the world there is a deep and widespread admiration for America and what is has accomplished domestically, including its culture and values. But there is also a “love/hate” relationship with America: many people love what we are, but they often hate what we do. That is, anti-American animosity is fueled more by our actions than by our existence, which has been confirmed by numerous Pew and Zogby polls, the Defense Science Board, and the 9/11 Commission.

Perhaps most importantly, Osama bin Laden has never cited democracy as his reason for advocating terrorism against the United States. As Michael Scheuer – former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit and the “anonymous” author of the New York Times bestseller Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror – keenly observes: “Osama bin Laden is preeminently a man of words, and a man of his word.” Indeed, in an October 2004 videotape, bin Laden said, “Contrary to what [President George W.] Bush says and claims – that we hate freedom – let him tell us then, ‘Why did we not attack Sweden?'”

In the final analysis, the threat to the United States is al-Qaeda and the radical Islamist ideology it represents and inspires, not the lack of democracy in the world. According to the Chinese book of practical wisdom, Tao Te Ching: “No calamity is greater than underestimating opponents.” To persist in thinking that al-Qaeda hates American freedom and prescribing a strategy of promoting democracy would be the greatest calamity because such thinking misunderstands and misconstrues the threat facing America, and is a recipe for failure.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.