Democracy Promotion and the Obama Doctrine
from Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Program and Markets and Democracy in the 21st Century

Democracy Promotion and the Obama Doctrine

President Obama is right to balance U.S. national interests with democracy promotion in dealing with the Middle East, intervening in select cases and standing behind democracy advocates in others, says expert Larry Diamond.  

April 8, 2011 8:57 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

The Obama administration has a difficult task in the Middle East, trying to balance U.S. strategic and national security interests with the promotion of democracy, but should not shy away from it, says Larry Diamond, a democracy expert at Stanford University. In what some have dubbed the "Obama Doctrine," the president’s March 2011 address to the nation laid out the administration’s rationale for use of military force in Libya, justifying such intervention where U.S. "safety is not directly threatened, but [where] our interests and values are." Diamond adds that it makes sense that the administration has taken different approaches to different countries and situations in the region, and that the United States has the most leverage in countries with which it is friendliest--Tunisia, for example, or Egypt. He also notes that because the United States can’t intervene militarily in all cases in which democracy advocates are subjects of government violence doesn’t mean "that we shouldn’t do it where we can." It’s a "very fine line," Diamond says. "You have to be patient, reserved, and disciplined enough to let these societies mobilize and achieve ownership of their own struggles for freedom, but assertive enough to stand behind them."

President Obama seems to be trying to reconcile the idealism embodied in his 2009 Cairo speech--in which he spoke to the Arab and Muslim world about the principles of justice, progress, tolerance, and dignity-- with the national interests that color the U.S. response to current uprisings in the region. How is the administration doing on this front?

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He’s doing "OK," because it’s a difficult challenge. It’s an existential challenge for the United States, because our interests in the region are so profound. It would be glib to say that if the president and his administration don’t adhere to a completely consistent and moral line of affirming human rights and democracy in the region, then it’s wrong and morally bankrupt.

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On the positive side, he [Obama] pushed hard to help show Mubarak the door. It’s possible to argue that if the United States had not mobilized the kind of private and public pressure that it did, at the time it did, Mubarak might have somehow survived and the military backing him might have been more tempted to use the force that we have seen, for example, in Syria or in Bahrain to try and end the demonstrations before they gather momentum. I think [the administration’s involvement] everywhere has been at least a little bit late, but, if it had been too early in Egypt, there was the risk of being accused of undue intervention and of playing into the hands of regime elements that want to stigmatize these opposition movements as illegitimate and expressions of foreign pressure.

It’s a very fine line. You have to be patient, reserved, and disciplined enough to let these societies mobilize and achieve ownership of their own struggles for freedom. But you have to be assertive enough to stand behind them. Partly it is a question of timing. Partly it’s a question of what you say in private and what you say in public. Partly it’s a question of what tools you have to bring to bear on the situation. The irony is in countries where we have a deep and complex set of relationships, like Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, and so on--in other words, friendly regimes--we have more tools to bring to bear, really. In a place like Syria, we have less leverage.

Obama’s handling of the crisis surrounding the anti-Mubarak pressure wound up being fairly artful and successful. Now there’s the question of whether the regime that is unfolding at the moment is going to be substantially different or more democratic than Mubarak.

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"It would be glib to say that if the president and his administration don’t adhere to a completely consistent and moral line of affirming human rights and democracy in the region, then it’s wrong and morally bankrupt."

Do you see Egypt as a lynchpin for the spread of democracy in the region?

It’s overwhelmingly the most important country in the Arab world. It’s by far the largest. It’s been culturally and politically a pace setter throughout history. The diffusion effects that could emanate from Egypt are therefore naturally more powerful. At the same time, it’s too much to argue that as Egypt goes, so goes every last hope for democratic change in the region. It is certainly possible to imagine that Egypt will not get through the difficult passage from authoritarianism to the kind of pseudo-democracy that’s swirling around now toward a genuine democracy any time soon. It may become stuck in transition, or even reverse. At the same time, Tunisia could successfully navigate the passage. And perhaps we will be surprised to find democratic change in Morocco, although I think the king’s reform plans are probably insincere. It’s difficult to forecast. These countries move to their own rhythm and dynamics.

Egypt is clearly the most important country in this mix. Even if it were to emerge as just more democratic than it had been under Mubarak, that would have a very positive impact. The most important change would be to get a single Arab country that could really be called, without torturing the term, an electoral democracy. Because the region has not had one for most of its history.

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What should the United States be doing in the intermediate and long term to help support these movements without seeming heavy-handed?

First, we need to continue the vigilance and the pressure--moral, rhetorical, diplomatic, and political pressure--for genuine democratic change in places like Egypt. There are just so many signs of evident insincerity and potential duplicity on the part of regimes that are organizing these transitions. The way that the Egyptian transitional regime, which is still in essence a military regime, has organized this transition, with the lack of transparency, the top-down nature of the constitutional reform process to date, the pace of the electoral calendar--so much of this seems designed to disadvantage the democratic forces and keep them in disarray. I also worried that they might play the same kind of game that Mubarak played in the last electoral cycle, when the Muslim Brotherhood started doing very well in the parliamentary elections in November 2005. In the final two rounds of those elections, the regime began cracking down on the process, thinking that once the United States had gotten the message that this is the outcome of a real democratic process in Egypt, they’d shut their mouths.

It’s basically many of the same people in power now. There’s some evidence that they’re trying to play the Islamist card again--trying to facilitate a pretty good electoral performance by the Muslim Brotherhood and making sure that the more liberal, pluralist democratic forces, which are more youth-oriented and have very little electoral experience, don’t have the time to really organize. These elements represent the greater threat to the political establishment, because they’re certainly more acceptable to the West, they’re a more plausible alternative, and they’re more capable of uniting the society.

The bottom line is that the relationship between Egypt and the United States and between Tunisia and the United States is still in question. The message from the United States to countries like this has to be that once they get to this stage: "Look, there are international standards for what constitutes legitimate elections. We and the international community and the UN and the European Union and so on all want to help your countries achieve the technical and administrative capacity and the political capacity from the ground up to meet these standards of truly democratic elections. But if you don’t have the political will to institute them, then that’s going to be a problem for the society and for external diplomatic relations.

[The Bush administration’s approach] wasn’t with the patience, the skill, the invitation to others to take more of a leading role that has been the case in this Libyan intervention. Some will criticize it as being less potent, but it also may be more sustainable as a result.

In negotiating these relationships, how does the United States achieve balance between the classic interests of security versus democracy promotion?

It is the single most difficult question in the mix as we deal with these countries. One thing we’re seeing is that there can’t be a single message or standard line that the United States takes with all of these countries. In Yemen, we really have to have security as a very prominent and exquisitely considered element of our strategy. Just keeping Saleh there and trying to prop him up while his legitimacy has collapsed is not a strategy for really affirming American security interests. At the same time, just pushing him out with no plan for what follows, while the political order unravels, and the place careens towards semi-state failure, that’s not a strategy either.

Obviously, the administration made a decision that it was going to pull back from democratic pressure in Bahrain for two pretty evident reasons. Number one, the presence of a major American naval base that’s crucial to the projection of American power and a stabilizing influence in the Gulf. Second, the Saudis basically told the United States that Bahrain is a vital interest for them, and they can’t risk the violence destabilizing oil production in an area that’s dominated by a religious minority with great sympathy for what’s happening in Bahrain.

I think [the United States] could continue to articulate and press for a more principled and forthright position than it has in Bahrain, but it just can’t go too far in trying to demand democratic change or in trying to push out the existing leaders as in Egypt. The Arab world is not one set of regimes or identities or cultures. It’s a set of impressively diverse societies and political systems.

With the U.S. military intervention in Libya, do you see the outlines of an Obama Doctrine? How would you compare this policy to that of his predecessor?

In each case of a new administration, we see presidents wrestling with the burden of moral leadership that the United States still has in the world, and I think will have indefinitely. As Clinton came to accept the humanitarian, moral, and geopolitical crisis in Bosnia, he realized that we can’t sit by and simply watch people struggling for their basic rights, trying to defend themselves against genocide or political oppression. We can’t simply sit by and watch them be slaughtered when we have the ability to do something to stop it. The fact that we lack the military force and the geopolitical capital to do it everywhere in the world, which is obvious, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it where we can, where the crisis becomes palpable, where we have other security interests at stake, and where there is a reasonable prospect of doing some good.

Obama spelled out rather intelligently some elements of a doctrine that could come into play in the future and that does have some echoes of the Bush posture in the world. However, I think Obama has more of a concern with deliberation and the mobilization of a genuinely multilateral coalition than was the case with George W. Bush. It’s pretty evident that Bush’s real successor in this regard, John McCain, would have intervened much earlier in Libya and would probably be doing so with wider scope now. On the one hand, that would be good because the rebels might be in a better situation now, and Qaddafi would be in more of a box, less able to contemplate the possibility of surviving. But if we had acted earlier and more unilaterally, we probably wouldn’t have gotten the UN Security Council Resolution or the Arab League support, which added considerable legitimacy to this intervention and detoxified it in a way that it could not be framed as yet another example of Western or American imperial endeavor in the region.

Obama waited for the last possible moment and was able to accomplish the extremely important step of genuine international legitimation. That kind of approach and the prominence of that element in his approach are different from the Bush administration’s approach--not that Bush didn’t mobilize and international coalition, but it wasn’t with the patience, the skill, the invitation to others to take more of a leading role that has been the case in this Libyan intervention. Some will criticize it as being a less potent approach, but it also may be more sustainable.


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