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How Do You ‘Make’ Democracy?

Posted on Jul 8, 2014

By William Pfaff

U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nicole Sikorski

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Barring the increasingly influential Isolationist/Tea Party wing of the American electorate, opinion is and always has been that the United States is the messenger of democracy to a world that usually hasn’t earned it and probably doesn’t deserve it.

The Obama administration today includes two camps officially committed to the promulgation of democracy, one of them located in the State Department, CIA and Pentagon, willing to employ subversion, invasion, and fire and brimstone to accomplish regime change in politically backward nations in order to bestow upon them a better life, such as the United States knows.

Associated chiefly but not at all exclusively with the Republican Party and Republican presidencies, it has been responsible since the first Gulf War for American-led mayhem in the Middle East and West Asian Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition, its enduring commitment in Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals has been to establish the primacy of NATO and indirect reign of the United States up to, or beyond, the frontiers of a weakened Russia.

With the election of Barack Obama this policy group was expected to lose influence, but this was a temporary phenomenon as the present internal struggle between east and west in Ukraine demonstrates, and the mounting pressure in Washington for American intervention in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic Caliphate that has been proclaimed to exist, straddling territories taken from both those countries. To this must be added alarm over China and the steady augmentation of the American military presence in Africa, in search of new democracy-building tasks—of which there are many.


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The second center of foreign policy activism in the Obama administration has been the White House and the office of the American Ambassador to the United Nations. It consists of those who are of humanitarian intervention persuasion, recently concerned mainly with civil struggle and nation-building in Sudan, “leading from behind” in Libya, and advocating intervention in the Syrian Revolution—and, one would hope, today preoccupied with the possibility if not probability that sectarian murders in Israel’s occupation and annexation of Palestinian territories may lead to uprising and another sanguinary military repression of the Palestinians, and against seething Gaza.

The United States, as the world knows, under every American government of the past 64 years, has borne a tremendous responsibility for this situation in Israel and what has led up to it, due to American complicity and implicit encouragement of Israel’s appropriation of the Palestinians’ lands and oppression of the Palestinian people, a policy that amounted to punishing the Palestinians for the Holocaust, and will leave a permanent stain upon the reputation of the Israeli nation and its people.

Few in the American democracy-building community—military version or peaceful persuaders—seem to have made or promoted serious public appraisals of whether any of this democracy-propagation works. How do you “make” democracy? If one considers the roster of serious, stable, reliably working democracies in the world today, I see none that did not “make” itself. Some inherited parliamentary institutions and civil liberty precedents from the colonial experience of their populations, contributing to the construction of independent nations. New states of British inheritance were luckiest in this.

Neo-conservative Americans, preceding, and again after, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, used to argue that after the Second World War the Allies “made” democracies of Germany and Japan. It followed, they claimed, that it would be the same in the Middle East and Asia.

Military occupation of both defeated states (which in the guise of perpetual alliance continues today!) certainly guaranteed that the Japanese and Germans would not plunge again into militarism. They were both sophisticated and exceptionally well-educated nations. Both had representative institutions and constitutional monarchies before the two World Wars, and Weimar Germany was a liberal state (too much so for its own good) between the wars. In 1945 both these defeated peoples were acquainted with representative government; and furthermore were integrated into democratic national communities in the years following the Second World War, and were threatened by totalitarian neighboring states.

Consider the results of the American effort under George W. Bush and Barack Obama to bring democracy to the Middle East and to Afghanistan today—or indeed to Ukraine and Georgia.

Iraq is a wrecked nation and soon may be a partitioned state. Afghanistan has paid an enormous price for its liberation from a Taliban government in 2001. Syria is in civil war, Saudi Arabia deeply unstable, and Islam itself has been thrown to the brink of a sectarian war that could permanently wound a great civilization. Ukraine experiences regional and sectarian conflict, and Russia has been deflected from the pacific course of international cooperation on which Mikhail Gorbachev set it.

To finish, consider what this proud effort has done to the United States, its civil liberties, and to its own democracy.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at

© 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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