US Analysis: How Obama Gave Up Democracy for “Security”

9
387

PHOTO: Barack Obama — “Democracy cannot be imposed on any nation from the outside”


Robert Pee of the University of Birmingham writes for The Conversation:


Barack Obama, the US President, waxed lyrical about some of his administration’s remarkable foreign policy achievements in his recent speech to the Democratic National Convention. “Through diplomacy, we shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” he said. “We opened up a new chapter with the people of Cuba, brought nearly 200 nations together around a climate agreement that could save this planet for our children.”

But while Obama drove home a powerful and personalized message about the appeal of American values, he said next to nothing about his attitude to one of the US’s most established priorities: the often-controversial business of promoting democracy around the world.

This highlights the fact that his administration has tended to prioritize short-term US national security interests over supporting democracy. Back in 2010, the Obama administration issued a National Security Strategy in which it set out its approach to promoting democracy.

As it explained, the administration’s vision had two main elements. The first was combining engagement with dictatorships with “top-down” pressure on them to open up political space in their countries. The second was “bottom-up” engagement and aid to overseas civil society groups to foster democratization.

Clearly the administration believed that promoting democracy would strengthen the US’s national security by creating more stable societies overseas. But this “double engagement” approach also raised the awkward question of whether working with dictatorships to ensure short-term security could be reconciled with the mission to foster political change in the interests of longer-term security.

In the end, the administration seems to have prioritized short-term US national security – and that has undermined both its top-down and bottom-up approaches.

The administration’s response to the “Arab Spring” in 2011 shows the complications of the top-down approach. In Egypt, the administration pressured the country’s authoritarian President, Hosni Mubarak, to step down. Although Mubarak was a key ally against Hamas and Iran, mass protests showed that he could no longer wield effective authority, so Washington gambled on pushing for a transition to democracy, the end goal being a stable government with popular support.

In contrast, Obama made little noise when pro-democracy protests in Bahrain were suppressed by regime security forces and Saudi troops. Preserving access to naval bases in the country for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, it seems, took precedence.

When the democratic Islamist government Egypt elected to replace Mubarak was also overthrown in a coup led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2013, the administration did not strongly criticize it. It also accepted Sisi’s flawed Presidential election victory in 2014.

For Obama, security co-operation with a friendly and stable Egypt had become more important than democracy. Congress imposed aid restrictions to try to moderate the regime’s repression, but the administration has been more concerned by Sisi’s more independent foreign policy than his dictatorial style of rule. In each case, the administration followed the policy it deemed most compatible with existing US national security interests – and this has often meant supporting dictatorships rather than pressing them towards reform.

ANTI-CLINTON PROTEST EGYPT 2012

Protest in Egypt against Hillary Clinton, July 2012

Stepping Back from Democracy

The administration has also backed away from the bottom-up funding of civil society groups overseas. This process has been spurred by the need to work closely with conservative Arab states to combat the Islamic State.

So far, this imperative has not undercut funding for US government agencies that aid foreign civil society groups, such as the US Agency for International Development and the Middle East Partnership Initiative. But even if their budgets have not been slashed, these organisations’ prerogative to fund independent foreign democratic groups has been threatened.

MEPI, which was set up as an independent government agency in 2002, has been placed more closely under the authority of the State Department. This makes it more likely that the funding of politically contentious foreign groups will be reined in, so as not to undermine the department’s core mission of maintaining diplomatic relations with foreign states – including dictatorships.

USAID is under pressure, too. The administration has tried to weaken legislation that bars foreign governments from influencing which civil society groups receive democracy-promotion funding from USAID, meaning that dictatorial allies could lobby the US government to cut funding to democratic groups they perceive as threatening to their rule.

In the worst-case scenario, such changes would make the US “democracy bureaucracy” less likely to fund organisations that may upset such allies.

Pragmatism Now, Pragmatism Forever?

It is difficult to predict precisely how Hillary Clinton will approach democracy promotion should she be elected president. Her nomination speech at this year’s Democratic convention offered few clues, so her tenure as Obama’s Secretary of State is the best indication – and on that basis, there seems to be little daylight between Obama and his prospective successor.

In a 2011 speech on the Arab Spring, Clinton affirmed the US’s support for democracy as an element of national security strategy, but cautioned that “there will be times when not all of our interests align….That is just reality”.

She also acknowledged that the US’s attitude to different pro-democracy movements abroad does not always look consistent from the outside. Nonetheless, if she holds this line, she is likely to follow Obama’s lead in prioritizing national security over democracy promotion when the two priorities conflict. This does not reflect some deep personality flaw in either her or her predecessor; it’s a pragmatic response to the challenges of an unstable and often uncooperative world.

After all, the US is less powerful in general than it has been in some time, and its leverage over undemocratic regimes has been weakened as alternative backers such as Russia and China enter the fray. It is hardly surprising that it is making some striking compromises to try and keep its footing.

The Conversation

Related Posts

9 COMMENTS

  1. U.S. Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a Hillary Clinton campaign surrogate, accused Sunday Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin of founding Daesh after Trump’s comments calling President Barack Obama and Clinton the founders of the militant group.

    “Trump probably thinks the SOFA –the Status Of Forces Agreement– is a gilded couch at Mar-A-Lago, he probably doesn’t even know what SOFA is. But that was a very relevant part of this. It is also important to realize that Assad, by what he did in his country allowed ISIS to move into Syria and get strongholds and recruit. That was the work and support of Putin, who is Trump’s best buddy. So you could say Trump and his friend Putin are the founders of ISIS, which probably would be more accurate,” she said.

  2. EXPLOSIVE!:m ” Secret Ledger in Ukraine Lists Cash for Donald Trump’s Campaign Chief,” As Michael Weiss notes, this story along should do in the Trump campaign.
    .
    Ukrainian investigators have found handwritten ledgers that show $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments designated for Mr. Manafort from Mr. Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party from 2007 to 2012, according to Ukraine’s newly formed National Anti-Corruption Bureau. Investigators assert that the disbursements were part of an illegal off-the-books system whose recipients also included election officials…
    .
    Among the hundreds of murky transactions various companies engaged in was an $18 million deal to sell Ukrainian cable television assets to a partbership put together by MANAFORT and Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, A CLOSE ALLY OF VLADIMIR PUTIN.
    .
    Putin’s staff features at least five members close to Putin’s circle of friends: His campaign manager, his top foreign affairs advisor, a retired American general who has been employed by Putin-controlled Russia Today (his top propaganda organ, and now we learn on one more in the article: Richard Gates). That’s if you exclude Trump himself. Note how these guys got rid of a GOP platform plank that would have urged support for the Ukrainians and anti-Assad rebels.
    .
    To use a favorite Trump phrase: “There’s something going on here” (always repeated to solidify the sense of conspiracy). Trump himself is seeking a Trump Casino in Moscow which both Trump’s in crowd and the Russian mafia would have to approve. Trump has actually urged Russia to continue hacking his political opponents and to provide anything useful. Russia has been obliging, vastly stepping up hacking of Democrats, including virtually every Senate and House Democrat in a quest for blackmail material.
    .
    http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/08/15/us/politics/paul-manafort-ukraine-donald-trump.html?_r=1&referer=

  3. IRONY!

    With 90 days to go until elections and massively unfavorable polls even before the Manifort exposure, Trump claims if he loses it will be because the election was rigged. Yet his own campaign, urged on by Putin and financed by Russia in the primary, replaced his campaign manager with one of Putin’s choosing–Paul Manifort who, according to new documents, was involved in bribing election officials in favor of Putin’s chosen candidate in the Ukraine.

    AND HOW ARE THOSE POLLS GOING, MR. BARBAR?

    A new poll in Washington State taken by the Seattle Times gives Hillary a +19 lead. Trump gets only 24% with 7 % going to isolationist Johnson and four percent to Putin-adoring Stein. Today Putin…er, Trump, is down as much as +30 in NY state where Trump (Putin) thought he had a chance. Trump gets 25 to 27%No, neither is a battleground state but nevertheless those figures are mind boggling. In California it could even be worse.

    And how is he doing in actual battleground states? Clinton leads by +2 in Nevada, +4 in Iowa in Ohio and Florida, +9 in North Carolina, +11 in Pennsylvania, + 13 in Virginia, +14 in Colorado. +15 in Wisconsin, and double digits in Michigan and New Hampshire. She is threatening in several red states: South Carolina, Georgia, Missouri, Arizona and possibly Kansas. The Manifort exposures could easily put her over the top because there is so much to come, including probably a Congressional or FBI investigation. That’s a stake through the heart. Trump’s campaign has been exposed for what it is–a proxy for Putin.

  4. Trump Campaign Manager Demanded Media Cover “Terror Attack” That Didn’t Happen

    .
    https://www.buzzfeed.com/hayesbrown/manafort-what?utm_term=.fcpba6kAD#.pp9nM3J7Q
    .
    Paul Manafort, speaking on CNN, said that a NATO base in Turkey came under attack. Russian outlets have pushed a similar storyline. It’s unclear precisely what Manafort was referring to as no terror attack had been claimed or reported on Incirlik air base in Turkey, last week or ever. The base is the staging area for US military operations against ISIS.
    .
    Apparently Manifort believes our media has too much freedom. It should serve as conduit for lies from Russia Today and similar Putin propaganda sites. Would a free press survive a Trump presidency (though the latter seems increasingly unlikely)? Trump himself has suggested Putin-like actions such as making it much easier for elected officials to sue critical journalists, or reducing separation of powers by increasing a president’s authority.

Leave a Comment