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George W. Bush and the promotion of democracy, part I

We will make you free...or kill you trying
We will make you free...or kill you trying

When George W. Bush was a candidate for president in 2000, he spoke of the need for the United States to have a humble foreign policy. This was the only way for America to maintain the dignity and respect it deserved in the eyes of the world. When Bush became the 43rd president, his administration would not be keen on nation-building.

After 9/11, Bush saw his public responsibility in an entirely different light. Now, the United States must protect herself and her interests at any cost. Incorporated into this new modus operandi was the priority of not only spreading democracy, but using it as a weapon to end tyranny wherever it may be found in the world (that mattered).

There is a disconnect between theory and action when it comes to the United States and her self-appointed role of democracy's agent. Since Woodrow Wilson surveyed the damage of the Great War, the United States has seen that it is not only a necessary strategy, but a moral obligation to be the model of freedom for all others to emulate. At the same time, those tactical interests would present aggravations that would prohibit the exercise of such a noble imperative. This conundrum glares brightly in the practices of recent U.S. presidential administrations.

Ronald Reagan presided over the climax of the Cold War, and as part of the package of battling Soviet hegemony, the promotion of democracy and the high-flying rhetoric that comes with it took the spotlight. The Gipper inspired the birth of the neo-cons with biblical proclamations like his declaration that the U.S.S.R. was the "Evil Empire."  Meanwhile, Reagan maintained cozy contacts with autocrats such as Suharto in Indonesia and Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire. Either strategy or impotence required these relations. Nations such as Saudi Arabia and China held too many trump cards to be subject to much public posturing by the morally superior United States.

The invasion of Grenada is considered to be an example of how American force can be used to promote democracy. The 1983 war predicted situations that would repeat themselves when George W. Bush was at the helm. A Muslim suicide attack killed 240 U.S. Marines in Beirut. Two days later, Reagan sent troops into Grenada to overthrow a Marxist coup. The two events are not directly related, but the timing was not coincidental (Al-Qaeda and Iraq, anyone?). European allies and the U.N. were up in arms over the unilateral actions of the U.S. It took slightly less than two months for the U.S. to install a pro-American government in Grenada, a major slap in the face to United States foes Cuba and Nicaragua. This may have been part of why Dick Cheney thought Iraq would be so fun and easy.

George H.W. Bush was less inclined to make grand statements about anything, and democracy promotion initially took a back seat during his presidency. This did not last long, as seemingly overnight, the Iron Curtain collapsed. The end of the decades-long Red Scare brought a wave of euphoria to the true believers in democracy.

In Panama, former CIA operative Manuel Noriega had worn out his welcome. Officially, it was his drug trafficking that raised the ire of the U.S., but it most likely had more to do with the desire for someone more trustworthy to be in charge when control of the Panama Canal was turned over. In 1989, U.S. forces invaded Panama to depose Noriega,a  move again vilified by Europe and the U.N. In short order, democracy was established in Panama, which has maintained a vigorously plural political system ever since. Grenada and Panama are held up as example when democracy by force was a success.

In contrast, George H.W. Bush and his administration were rather mute in their response to the Tiananmen Square massacre in China. The chief concern for the American leadership was whether civil war was imminent and the implications for business transactions. When it became clear that the Chinese government was solidly in place, the U.S. resumed its curiously deferential relationship with China.

Bill Clinton made democracy promotion a central theme from day one in his presidential campaign. His team saw it as a way to win back the neo-con whom had been borne out of frustration with Jimmy Carter's ineffectual foreign policy and  attraction to Ronald Reagan's muscle-flexing. Under Clinton's watch, NATO was expanded and the U.S. undertook major interventions in the Balkans and Haiti. He also helped established the Community of Democracies. His realpolitick approach to foreign policy is often brushed aside by admirers and detractors alike.

The ideals that lead to a structure that becomes a working government are, by nature, nebulous. Generally agreed upon definitions of what constitutes a democracy are as follows: direct or representative participation by the citizenry, a constitution, respect for human rights and political equality especially regarding women, freedom of speech and the press, and of course, elections.

Respect for human rights may be the romantic vision for why the United States would engage in democracy promotion. There is, however, a realist side that contends that democracies make better trading partners, are more likely to honor treaties, and generally behave better. This maintains the balance of power.

George W. Bush stated that democracy promotion was a key element in the long-term struggle against terrorism. Bush and his team, particularly Condi Rice and Paul Wolfowitz, used the idea and ideal of democracy as a panacea for all of the ills in the world. Along with combating terror, it was the central factor in achieving economic and political stability around the world. Bush leaned heavily on his professed belief that liberty was a God-given right bestowed on all of the children of the world. 

A common perception of the reality of Bush's promotion of democracy was that it was conducted by invasion and occupation, defined as coercive democracy. Then, elections would be hurried along with the intention of producing agreeable victors. Such was not always, if ever, the case. And of course, deals had to be made.....(to be continued with part 2, the successes and failures of democracy promotion in the George W. Bush years...)


  • THE VOICE 5 years ago

    The block purchasing of health care by all government and non-government unions is what went wrong with our health insurance in America. No one seems to be pointing the finger in the right direction. Maybe you could spread the word on this un-exposed reality.

  • ken sawyer 5 years ago

    All valid points. Well said.

  • classical liberal 5 years ago

    All wars, nation building, democracy spreading, world government creating (league of nations, UN) is an ultra progressive characteristic.

    No thanks. Free trade otherwise leave them alone and stay out of their business. Enough wasting our resources to try to save the world. Everyone hates us for it. Not sure if doing nothing all this time could have been better. After all, Wilson's Versailles treaty helped pave way to Hitler...

    Thats progressive interventionism for neocons are taking the lead. Obviously neocons are progressive too.

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