An American in Paris

I was in Paris last week with my wife and daughter for Thanksgiving. One of the things we noticed was that there were Americans almost everywhere we went. My initial reaction was a bit of surprise given the currently weak dollar versus the Euro ($1.48 USD = 1 Euro as this is written). But my other reaction was that maybe Americans were finally getting over the Francophobia that seemed to set in during the run-up to the Iraq war. Remember when then U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld proclaimed, "Germany has been a problem, and France has been a problem. But you look at vast numbers of other countries in Europe. They’re not with France and Germany on this, they’re with the United States"? As a result of disagreement over Iraq, French bashing became a new American pastime. Some of the scathing phrases in American newspaper headlines included: "Axis of Weasels," "Rabid Weasels," "Cheese-eating surrender monkeys," and "Standing with Saddam."

And who can forget the height of anti-French absurdity was when U.S. representatives Bob Ney (R-OH) and Walter Jones (R-NC) spearheaded a move changing "french fries" to "freedom fries" in the three House office building restaurants as a culinary rebuke for France’s refusal to support the U.S. position on Iraq. According to Ney, "This action today is a small, but symbolic effort to show the strong displeasure of many on Capitol Hill with the actions of our so-called ally, France."

But maybe Americans are now more able to separate the policy choices of the French government from France the country and the French people themselves. This is an important distinction that the rest of the world seems more able to make when it comes to America and Americans versus U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, as polls have consistently demonstrated, people around the world – including Muslims – admire America, Americans, and American values and culture but are very critical of U.S. policies.

Two news stories during our stay in Paris served as reminders of the problems of U.S. foreign policy. The first was about a young Saudi woman who was gang raped and, despite being the victim, subsequently punished under Saudi law that forbids unrelated men and women from associating with one another (her attackers were also punished). The woman’s original sentence was 90 lashes, but when her case was appealed the sentence was increased to 200 lashes and a 6-month prison term. Certainly, by American and Western standards such punishment is unjust and uncalled for – but the issue is not whether strict Sharia law as practiced in Saudi Arabia comports with our standards. The larger, and more important issue, is that the United States has made democratic transformation in the Muslim world the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy (although spreading democracy is not a sound basis for policy and strategy, liberal democracies themselves are certainly good) – which is what the U.S. military mission in Iraq is now all about. As such, the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy is in clear view for all Muslims to see. On the one hand, the U.S. claims to have deposed Saddam Hussein so it can bestow democracy on Muslims previously oppressed by a brutal dictator. Yet, at the same time, the U.S. supports an undemocratic and oppressive regime in neighboring Saudi Arabia that essentially adheres to the same views of Islam as Osama bin Laden and other radical Muslims. The net result is more credibility for bin Laden’s missives against the United States and the easier it is for the message of radical Islam to take root throughout the Muslim world.

The second news story was about the continuing crackdown in Pakistan by soon to be former General Pervez Musharraf, who claims Pakistan to be a democracy despite the fact that he came to power by overthrowing a democratically elected government and his recent declaration of emergency rule included purging supreme court justices (presumably who would challenge Musharraf’s legitimacy as president) and rounding up opposition journalists, lawyers and human rights activists. Incredibly, when asked if he thought Musharraf had crossed a line, President Bush responded that he thought Musharraf "hasn’t crossed the line" and "truly is somebody who believes in democracy." According to Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator Joe Biden (D-DE), "What exactly would it take for the president to conclude Musharraf has crossed the line? Suspend the constitution? Impose emergency law? Beat and jail his political opponents and human rights activists? He’s already done that." Like U.S. support for the ruling Saudi monarchy, U.S. support for the Musharraf regime opens the United States to charges of hypocrisy that can be exploited by radical Islamists to recruit potential terrorists to their ranks.

The issue is not that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan should be democracies (which, in the general sense, would be a good thing in that liberal democracy is as good thing – but would also likely be a case of "be careful what you wish for" in that the results of truly democratic elections in both countries would likely produce anti-American governments) or that the United States should be more forcefully promoting democracy in those countries (including perhaps regime change such as was done in Iraq). Rather, the issue is the wisdom of making democracy the raison d’être of U.S. foreign policy.

No one would dispute that democracy is a worthy goal. And certainly the United States should encourage the formation of liberal democracies throughout the world. But there are at least twenty countries in the world that can be categorized as undemocratic by the dictionary definition of democracy: "a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system." And some governments that claim to be democratic are democratic in name only. But whether any of these countries is a threat to the United States, however, is not a function of whether they are democracies. (It is true that almost all democratic governments in the world are friendly to the United States, but the fact that Burma is ruled by a military government does not make it a threat to America.) Threats are defined by hostile intentions and military capability. And U.S. national security is based on being able to counter (either by deterring or defeating) direct threats. Thus, the litmus test is not whether a country meets U.S.-imposed criteria of democratic government, but whether it has hostile intentions and real military capability to directly threaten the United States.

Moreover, the examples of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan highlight the problems associated with U.S. support for Muslim countries with autocratic regimes who profess to be allies in the so-called war on terrorism, while at the same time triumphing the spread of democracy in the Islamic world. The United States should be wary about providing unqualified support to countries simply because they profess to be "anti-Islamist" or "anti-terrorist." If history is any guide, when the United States supported undemocratic and unpopular regimes during the Cold War simply because they were friendly to it, and when those regimes were overthrown, the results were often virulently anti-American successor governments (e.g., Iran and Nicaragua).

Since democracy – in and of itself – is not a prerequisite for U.S. national security and since the lack of democracy is not a reason for the terrorist threat to America (according to a 2004 videotape by bin Laden, "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?’"), pursuing a U.S. foreign and security policy based on advancing democracy is misguided at best. Worse yet, it could end up doing more to breed terrorism than to prevent it.

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.