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The Candidates on Democracy Promotion in the Arab World

September 26, 2008

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Issue Trackers trace the positions of candidates from the 2008 presidential campaign on major issues related to foreign policy.

The Bush administration has touted democracy promotion as an essential pillar of its foreign policy, including its counterterrorism campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other conflict zones. President Bush emphasized the centrality of this policy in his second inaugural address, in which he said: “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

While critics argue that the United States has been inconsistent in its pursuit of this policy, most of the presidential frontrunners appear to agree the United States should attempt to try to foster democracy in the Middle East in order to stabilize the region and loosen the grip of its authoritarian leaders. But candidates differ on the proper methods to accomplish these goals.

Democratic Ticket on Democracy Promotion in the Arab World

Barack Obama
Democratic Party Nominee - President

President Obama has said the United States benefits from "the expansion of democracy," and said democratic countries are "our best trading partners, our most valuable allies and the nations with which we share our deepest values." In a March 2008 Washington Post interview, Obama said the United States should work to advance democracy by setting an example and banning torture, extraordinary rendition and by closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

Obama has said he will "significantly increase" funding for the National Endowment for Democracy "and other nongovernmental organizations to support civic activists in repressive societies." He also said he plans to start a "Rapid Response Fund for young democracies and post-conflict societies that will provide foreign aid, debt relief, technical assistance and investment packages that show the people of newly hopeful countries that democracy and peace deliver, and the United States stands by them."

Obama favors democracy promotion as a principle of foreign policy (he introduced the DRC Relief, Security and Democracy Promotion Act in 2005). Still, he has generally not framed his rhetoric about the Middle East in terms of democracy promotion.

Obama cosponsored the ADVANCE Democracy Act of 2005, which sought to reinforce the U.S. commitment to promoting democracy around the world. That bill would have established "Regional Democracy Hubs" around the world meant to develop and implement strategies to help bring about democratic transitions in non-democratic countries. The bill never passed.

In the summer 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, Obama said democratic states are better equipped to fight terrorism, stop the spread of weapons, and deal with public health crises. To this end, Obama said as president he would increase foreign aid funding to $50 billion by 2012 and demand reform of corrupt governments. He also said he would "capitalize a $2 billion Global Education Fund" to ensure educated citizens that can contribute to the solidifying of democracy around the world.

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Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Democratic Party Nominee - Vice President

Sen. Biden (D-DE) has said that the promotion of democracy in the Middle East is necessary but must be paired with a realist outlook. "There is often a short-term conflict between democracy promotion and our vital security interests," he said at a March 2005 speech to the American Jewish Committee. "Pushing too hard, too fast on democracy [in the Middle East] risks alienating governments whose help we need," such as Russia and China. He echoed this sentiment in a 2006 statement at a Senate hearing on non-governmental organizations and democracy promotion (PDF).

Biden sponsored a provision to the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006 to create a $20 million fund for Palestinian democracy and peace between Israelis and Palestinians. That act was passed. Biden has also advocated public diplomacy efforts in the Middle East through international broadcasting, a strategy that the United States has used for decades, most notably in the case of Radio Free Europe broadcasts during the Cold War.

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Republican Ticket on Democracy Promotion in the Arab World

John McCain
Republican Party Nominee - President

Sen. McCain (R-AZ) believes in the importance of democratic development in the Middle East. "The promotion of democracy and freedom is simply inseparable from the long-term security of the United States," he said in 2005. At a speech before the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, McCain expressed support for democracy promotion in the Middle East saying: "If the alternative to our democracy promotion efforts is a return to the days in which we simply supported pro-American dictators throughout the Middle East, I say this cost is too high. We have learned the dangers in such approach, and the lessons have been painful."

McCain is the chairman of the Board of Directors of the International Republican Institute (IRI), a U.S.-funded NGO that is "committed to advancing freedom and democracy worldwide by developing political parties, civic institutions, open elections, good governance and the rule of law." McCain cosponsored the ADVANCE Democracy Act of 2005.

He also cosponsored the 2006 Iran Freedom Support Act.

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Sarah Palin
Republican Party Nominee - Vice President

Palin says she thinks the United States should “make every effort possible to help spread democracy for those who desire freedom, independence, tolerance, respect for equality.” In a September 2008 interview with the CBS Evening News, Palin said the promotion of democracy is the underlying goal in U.S. counterterrorism efforts. “It's not just to keep the people safe, but to be able to usher in democratic values and ideals [around] the world,” Palin said.

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Democratic Primary Candidates on Democracy Promotion in the Arab World

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Democratic Primary Candidate

Sen. Clinton (D-NY) says she supports efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East. “We want to continue to export democracy, but we want to deliver it in digestible steps,” she said in reference to Iraq in a January 2007 interview with the New Yorker. Clinton has also criticized the Bush administration’s democracy promotion efforts; at a speech given at CFR in 2006, she said “we’ve done a good job talking about democracy, but we sure haven’t done a comparable good job in promoting the long-term efforts that actually build institutions after the elections are over and the international monitors have gone home.”

Editor's Note: Sen. Clinton withdrew her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on June 7, 2008.

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Christopher J. Dodd
Democratic Primary Candidate

Sen. Dodd (D-CT) favors promoting democracy but criticizes those who believe democracy is “just waiting to blossom” in the Middle East. “I’d love to see a democratic Middle East,” he is quoted as saying in the New Yorker, “but you’ve got to be a coherent society before you can be a democracy.” Dodd serves on the Senior Advisory Committee for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), a U.S.-funded organization whose mission is “to strengthen and expand democracy worldwide,” usually by election monitoring.

Editor's Note: Sen. Dodd withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 3, 2008.

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John Edwards
Democratic Primary Candidate

During the 2004 presidential campaign, Edwards released a “Strategy for Freedom,” a comprehensive plan for democracy promotion that included the creation of new international institutions, including an “Organization for Security and Cooperation in the Middle East," which among other things would assist in monitoring elections and crisis management. Edwards also proposed the establishment of a new “Democracy Caucus” in the United Nations. The Bush administration has worked to form such a caucus. Edwards said that he would make U.S. financial assistance contingent on democratic development. Edwards’ plan also includes the creation of a State Department “Freedom List” of political prisoners.

Editor's note: Edwards dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination on January 30, 2008.

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Dennis Kucinich
Democratic Primary Candidate

Rep. Kucinich (D-OH) is a skeptic of democracy promotion efforts in the Middle East. “Iran had a democratic government which was overthrown because of oil,” Kucinich said in a September 2006 speech, referring to the U.S. role in the 1953 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq. Kucinich opposed the 2006 Iran Freedom Support Act, which would toughen sanctions on Iran and grant the president the authority to “provide financial and political assistance (including the award of grants) to foreign and domestic individuals, organizations, and entities that support democracy and the promotion of democracy in Iran.” Kucinich saw the act mainly as a way for the Bush administration to build up to war with Iran. That bill passed and was enacted in September 2006.

Editor's Note: Rep. Kucinich withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 25, 2008.

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Bill Richardson
Democratic Primary Candidate

Although Richardson initially expressed support for Bush’s Middle Eastern democracy agenda, he has grown critical of U.S. efforts in the region. “I believe the Bush administration deserves credit for putting pressure and saying that authoritarian regimes have to go,” Richardson said in 2005. He also said in 2005 that Bush’s promotion of democracy in the Middle East “is working,” and that those efforts are “sparking a wave of very positive democratic sentiment that might help us override both Islamic fundamentalism that has formed in that region and also some of the hatred for our policy of invading Iraq.” More recently, however, Richardson has called for a troop withdrawal from Iraq, citing, as he did on Meet the Press in May 2007, a strengthened democratic system there.

Editor's Note: Richardson withdrew his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 10, 2008.

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Republican Primary Candidates on Democracy Promotion in the Arab World

Sam Brownback
Republican Primary Candidate

Sen. Brownback (R-KS) is a strong supporter of democracy promotion efforts, especially in the Middle East. “We must take proactive steps to promote democracy and human rights abroad,” Brownback said in 2004, after the passage of several amendments that he proposed to an omnibus spending bill. Those amendments granted $3 million in funding to “pro-democracy efforts” in Iran. They also redirected pro-democracy funding in Egypt to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) because, as Brownback said, “it is an abuse of taxpayer funds to have these funds spent at the discretion of the government of Egypt.”

Brownback cosponsored the 2006 Iran Freedom Support Act.

Editor's Note: Sen. Brownback withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on October 19, 2007.

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Rudy Giuliani
Republican Primary Candidate

Giuliani shares the Bush administration’s larger goal of a democratic (AFP) Iraq and Middle East. But, he says, stability takes precedence over democracy. “Democracy can't flourish unless people are safe. You can't have democracy when people are being killed,” he said in January 2007.

Editor's note: Giuliani dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 31, 2008.

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Mike Huckabee
Republican Primary Candidate

Huckabee says the broader goal in the Middle East should be “to correctly calibrate a course between maintaining stability and promoting democracy.” But, he says, “it’s self-defeating to try to accomplish too much too soon; you just have elections where extremists win, but it’s equally self-defeating to do nothing.” He proposes to first eliminate terrorists by “winning” the war in Iraq, and then to solve the “underlying conditions that breed terror” by assisting in the building of schools “that offer an alternative to the extremist madrassas,” and by bolstering the job market (though he does not specify how to accomplish this) and supporting democratic institutions like a free press.

Editor's Note: Huckabee withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on March 4, 2008.

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Duncan Hunter
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Hunter (R-CA) has said that the promotion of democracy is a primary reason for military action in Iraq . He strongly supports Bush’s efforts to stimulate democracy in the Middle East . In 2006, he said, “I think we are going to be as successful as we were in … [disassembling] the Soviet empire, as successful as we were in bringing democracy (The Hill) to nations in Central America.”

Hunter voted in favor of the 2006 Iran Freedom Support Act.

Editor's note: Hunter dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 19, 2008.

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Ron Paul
Republican Primary Candidate

The noninterventionist Rep. Paul (R-TX) voted against the 2006 Iran Freedom Support Act, which he said was reminiscent of legislation passed in the buildup to the Iraq war (WashTimes).

Editor's Note: Rep. Paul withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on June 12, 2008.

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Mitt Romney
Republican Primary Candidate

Romney advocates democracy promotion as a key prong in his strategy to "defeat the jihadists." On his campaign website, he calls for a U.S.-led "international coalition that promotes secular education, modern financial and economic policies, international trade, and human rights" in the Middle East. He elaborates in a summer 2007 Foreign Affairs article, saying he would like to create a "Partnership for Prosperity and Progress" aimed at supporting moderate Muslims in economic, health, rule of law and other areas to help them "defeat radical and violent Islam."

The policy chairman for Romney's campaign was Vin Weber, who sits on the U.S. Secretary of State's Advisory Committee on Democracy Promotion.

Editor's note: Romney dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on February 7, 2008.

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Tom Tancredo
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Tancredo (R-CO) thinks that the United States should “implant democracies where there are now dictatorships” in the Middle East. In an interview with Right Wing News, Tancredo explained that democracies represent the only possible forum in which the U.S. can “encourage and create the spread of moderate Islam.” Tancredo cosponsored the ADVANCE Democracy Act of 2005 (H.R. 1133). He also voted in favor of the 2006 Iran Freedom Support Act.

Editor's Note: Congressman Tancredo formally withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on December 20, 2007.

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Tommy Thompson
Republican Primary Candidate

Former Health and Human Services Secretary Thompson has said that “medical diplomacy" should be a key component of U.S. efforts to promote democracy. Writing in a 2005 Boston Globe editorial, he said medical diplomacy can be a “complement to our approach to Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Editor's note: Thompson dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on August 12, 2007.

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