President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq signaled the unambiguous return of "democratic imperialism" in American foreign policy. Entailing what is tantamount to the imposition of democracy upon a foreign country, this can be seen as the ultimate manifestation of America's traditional obsession with its role as a global moral crusader. (1) Bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq is expected to impart a "domino-like" effect throughout the Middle East, resulting in the collapse of one autocracy after another. President Bush elaborated his vision in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on February 27, 2003, by any measure a presidential manifesto on the virtues of spreading democracy abroad. Removing Saddam Hussein from power and replacing him with a democratically elected government, Bush asserted, "would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region." (2)
This robust rebirth of democratic imperialism could hardly have been imagined only a few years ago. As a candidate in 2000, Bush faulted the Clinton administration for its intervention in Haiti in 1994 with the goal of restoring democracy there as well as for its "humanitarian interventions" in Somalia and Kosovo. His stance was in keeping with the conservative realpolitik of his closest advisers, who regarded the moralistic impulse in American foreign policy as at best a distraction and at worst counterproductive. (3) It was now Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who then advised Bush to adopt a hard-nosed realist view of international relations that left little room for the spread of democracy by force or other means. (4) Her predecessor at the State Department, Colin Powell, who Bush entrusted with the task of selling the war in Iraq to the world, had opposed ousting Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf war and advised against intervention to stop genocide in Bosnia, contending that neither case posed a threat to the national interest.
Indeed, the attempt to democratize the Middle East is little short of revolutionary. Unlike in Asia, Africa, and especially Latin America, promoting democracy in the Middle East has never been an explicit U.S. goal. Over the years, American policymakers have been reticent to push democratization there on the grounds that friendly authoritarians in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt provided a defense against the spread of radical Islam. Conventional wisdom held that the advent of real reforms in the Arab world could result in legitimately elected Islamist governments that were "anti-American and ultimately anti-democratic in orientation." (5) This scenario materialized in Algeria during the 1990s. To prevent the all-but-certain electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the Algerian military staged a coup in January 1992, condoned by the United States and other Western powers, which opened the way for a civil war that has claimed an estimated 150,000 lives.
September 11 was obviously the most important factor behind the roaring return of democratic imperialism. The events of that fateful day engendered the belief that Islamic authoritarianism nurtured political extremism, and that the essential corrective was the democratization of the Muslim, and especially the Arab, world. As expounded by Under Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky, "The advancement of human rights and democracy is the bedrock of our war on terrorism. A stable government that responds to the legitimate desires of its people and respects their rights, and shares power is a powerful antidote to extremism." (6) These views echoed influential neoconservative voices in the Bush administration who maintained that American power should not be limited to the defense of vital interests but should also be employed to defeat ideologies opposing freedom and democracy. (7) Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a pivotal figure in the "neocon" movement, argued that the challenge facing the United States after 9/11 was far wider than a fight against terrorism: "It is a war of ideas, a struggle over modernity and secularism, pluralism and democracy and real economic development." (8)
However outwardly attractive and compelling, the return of democratic imperialism is rooted in faulty premises that are not merely quixotic but actually counterproductive in spreading democracy, peace, and order around the world. These "follies of democratic imperialism," as I call them, were first formulated by President Woodrow Wilson to justify his democratic crusades in Latin America during an earlier era when America's imperial impulses were in full bloom. They have been adopted virtually unvarnished eight decades later by President Bush, "the most Wilsonian president since Wilson himself," (9) conjuring the image of America as "the New Rome." (10) Oddly, the ideals underpinning democratic imperialism are probably more problematic today than when they were first unveiled. Now, as then, they encourage false and unrealistic expectations about the benefits of spreading democracy abroad and the capacity of the United States to develop democratic practices in places where none existed before.
From Wilson to Bush: Quixotic Ideals
In sending U.S. troops to Mexico in 1914 with the intention of toppling the dictatorship of Gen. Victoriano Huerta, who had seized power through a violent coup the year before, Wilson articulated three principles that comprise the essence of "Wilsonianism," and by extension, democratic imperialism. First is the view that spreading democracy abroad, even by force, is an unqualified blessing. Wilson saw democracy as the source of trust, order, and peace in international relations. "A steadfast concert of peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. No autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants," declared Wilson as he dispatched the Marines to occupy the port of Veracruz and force a showdown with what he called "a government of butchers." (11) Wilson's faith flowed from what is known today as "democratic peace theory," which contends that democracies, owing to their very constitution, do not go to war with each other. (12) Thus, Wilson reasoned, the more democratic the world, the more peaceful it would become.
Second was Wilson's belief in democracy as a universal value capable of succeeding everywhere. "There is no people not fitted for self government," asserted Wilson as he undertook to bring "an orderly and righteous government" to Mexico. (13) This cut against the grain of the era's conventional wisdom about Latin America, given its Catholic faith, colonial experience, warm climate, mixed racial heritage, and presumed volatile temperament. (14) A New York Times editorial published at the time of Wilson's intervention in Mexico observed that a great part of the Latin American public was "hopelessly ignorant while those of high intelligence, often of pure Spanish blood and free from that racial mixture which has been so prolific, remain aloof from politics." (15)
Finally, there was Wilson's conviction that America was the bearer of the moral task of democratizing the world. He believed that "as the definite example of democracy, the United States had a special obligation to extend its benefits and to instruct backward peoples in its uses." (16) This was squarely within the tradition that it was America's "manifest destiny" to create "an exemplary state separate from the corrupt and fallen world devoted to pushing the world along by means of regenerative intervention." (17) Such a providential mandate was rooted in America's unique history: its revolutionary origins, its republican and federal constitution, and its flourishing economy. In Wilson's words: "We are friends of constitutional government in America; we are more than its friends, we are its champions. I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men!" (18) This mission required a hands-on approach, as Wilson stressed in his struggle to redeem Mexico:
The duty of the United States was not to act as a policeman who established order and then left, but rather to provide a strong guiding hand of the great nation on this continent. America must assist these warring people back to the path of quiet and prosperity. After that was accomplished, the United States might leave the Mexicans to work out their own destiny watching them narrowly and insisting that they shall take help when help is needed. (19) Although separated by nearly a century, Wilson's zeal for changing the world anticipates Bush's in strikingly similar ways. "The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values because stable and free nations do not breed ideologies of murder. They encourage the peaceful pursuit of a better life," the president asserted in his AEI speech. In a subsequent address at Whitehall in London in November 2003 meant to shore up European support for the war in Iraq, Bush reiterated the theme: "Democracy and the hope and progress it brings are the alternative to instability and to hatred and terror. Lasting peace is gained as justice and democracy advance."
Like Wilson, Bush alludes to the universal appeal of democracy, especially in connection to the Middle East which, like Latin America in years past, is today regarded by many as culturally unsuited to democracy. This view has its roots in the perceived incompatibility of Islam and democracy and is underscored by the fact that not a single Arab society can credibly be deemed democratic. (20) No less an authority than Princeton's Bernard Lewis, the doyen of Middle East studies, has stated that "Islam is incompatible with democracy as the fundamentalists themselves would be the first to say: they regard liberal democracy as a corrupt and corrupting form of government." (21) To such skeptics Bush responds: "It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world or...