Analysis Brief

PrintPrint CiteCite
Style: MLAAPAChicago Close


Returning to Realism

Author: Robert McMahon, Managing Editor
November 21, 2007


The Bush administration enters its final year with a show of support for democratically challenged allies ruling Pakistan, Egypt, and Ethiopia. To some, the reality appears far removed from President Bush’s second inaugural vow to “encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people.” But a number of analysts see this as a natural return to foreign policy realism in which U.S. interests in spreading democracy must be balanced by security concerns.

The issue resounds on the presidential campaign trail, with Pakistan’s political crisis posing a giant litmus test on the willingness of U.S. leaders to press for democratic reforms. The November 15 Democratic debate found the party’s presidential hopefuls split on using U.S. aid as a lever for easing up President Pervez Musharraf’s controls. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, along with Gov. Bill Richardson, were most emphatic on suspending some military aid—a step the Bush administration has declined to take so far—in the event Musharraf fails to hold January elections and maintains the state of emergency. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), a member of Biden’s committee, challenged that thinking, saying if Musharraf did not respond to U.S. threats “then you have to terminate [those] relations, and that puts this country in a very, very dangerous position.” Front-running Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) agreed, adding, “The first obligation of the president of the United States is to protect and defend the United States of America.” The revelation in last Sunday’s New York Times of a secret U.S. aid program to bolster the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal might serve to bolster this realist view.

The Dodd-Clinton views were more in line with comments (FOX) from top Republican candidates Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Mitt Romney that warned against cutting off aid to an ally enmeshed in a campaign against al-Qaeda. Republican frontrunner Rudy Giuliani has kept quiet on the Pakistani crisis, though he has generally advanced a “realistic peace” policy agenda. Giuliani has said he recognizes the long-term importance of democracy promotion but that it must be balanced with other U.S. interests. Democracy “can only work if people have a reasonable degree of safety and security,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs recently.

By varying degrees, this view is echoed by many of the leading candidates from both parties, who endorse democracy promotion in principle but also stress the importance of institution building in the world’s impoverished Arab and Muslim states. In the same vein, candidates’ general support for Bush administration nuclear negotiations with North Korea seems an acknowledgement that in some cases it is better to barter with a human rights pariah if the reward is nuclear disarmament. At the same time, there appears to be a gradual lessening of the ardor Americans have for democracy promotion, from 52 percent in 2005 to 37 percent in 2007, according to the German Marshall Fund (PDF).

But two former White House aides take critics of the Bush “freedom agenda” to task for abandoning a worthy cause. Peter Wehner argues in the Weekly Standard that Iraq’s elections, for example, “remain the pathway to progress” along with building democratic institutions. And CFR’s Michael Gerson chides conservatives who had dismissed Bush’s democracy promotion as a utopian fantasy. Gerson writes that without firm moral convictions that should be acted on, conservatism “can become pessimistic and un-ambitious—a morally indifferent preference for the status quo.”

More on This Topic