Less Talk, More Action

So far the Obama administration has been quiet about its approach to democracy promotion, and that may be intentional according to democracy expert and Obama advisor Michael McFaul. After Bush’s use of the ‘freedom agenda’ as retroactive justification for the the war in Iraq, it might indeed be wise for the new administration to talk less, but to do more. As McFaul told Helene Cooper at the Caucus Blog,

Rather than speeches or even grand goals, the next administration should seek to achieve small, concrete outcomes that advance political freedoms in very tangible ways and do so, without talking about doing so.

McFaul cites Egyptian opposition member Ayman Nour as an example where rhetoric previously beat out action. McFaul wrote in a paper last year that, “President Bush delivered several lofty speeches explaining why the United States should promote freedom, yet Ayman Nour sits in jail in Egypt.” (Bush’s used ‘free,’ ‘freedom,’ or ‘liberty’ 49 times in his second inaugural address). He also said in a paper with Francis Fukuyama that, “democracy promotion should be placed in a broader context of promoting economic development, reducing poverty, and furthering good governance.”

Unfortunately, George Bush may have done as much damage to the idea of promoting free speech and democratic governance around the world as he did to the Republican ‘brand.’ When WMD never turned up in Iraq, democracy promotion and the freedom agenda suddenly became the central justification for the invasion of Iraq. Francis Fukuyama argues that the previous administration also often looked insincere after the Abu Ghraib scandal, and when it pushed for elections in the Middle East but then refused to engage Hamas after they beat out what many saw as a corrupt Fatah organization in Palestinian elections. As Francis Fukuyama told the Times, ”

“The problem with Bush’s legacy is they tied democracy promotion so much to the Iraq war justification and the war on terrorism that it made American policy look hypocritical,” Mr. Fukuyama said. “If you use the language that Bush used in the second inaugural, all of that soaring rhetoric, it’s going to make you look stupid when Hamas comes to power.”

The key point that needs to be reinforced, however, is that the way one promotes democracy globally is even more important than what you say about it. As Karin von Hippel first noted in the Balkans, promoting democracy at gunpoint will never work. Instead, diplomatic engagement, the frank and open exchange of ideas, and open access to information may be just the right touch that is needed today. Going on Al Arabiya for the President’s first official interview seems like it might be a small but symbolic step in the right direction.

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One Response to “Less Talk, More Action”

  1. » Egyptian Dissident Suddenly Released From Prison I&D Blog Says:

    […] and Democratic Congress, which was increasingly critical of Nour’s detention. As we wrote here earlier, Nour’s detention was raised as key issue for democracy scholar and new NSC staffer […]