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June 24, 2009

The Power of U.S. Democracy Rhetoric (or, learning the wrong lessons from the Bush era)
Posted by Shadi Hamid

In watching events in Iran, I keep on getting this sense that the Bush years – particularly as they relate to democracy promotion – are being misunderstood, or perhaps misinterpreted. The chronology (of 2004-6) has become blurred. The idea that U.S. democracy rhetoric is counterproductive is not necessarily wrong, but it certainly seems like an odd lesson to glean from the Bush era.

For a short time, Bush’s pro-democracy rhetoric had a positive effect on reform in general, and on reformers in particular. It is not an accident that President Bush’s short-lived democracy promotion efforts (which lasted for less than a year during late 2004 and part of 2005) coincided with the only “Arab spring” we’ve seen in the Arab world in quite some time. What did these efforts consist of? Not a whole lot. A lot of soaring rhetoric, strong public statements, and some highly public, symbolic gestures, such as Condoleezza Rice canceling a trip to Cairo in March in protest of Ayman Nour’s detention, and, well, not a whole lot else.

The lesson here is that rhetoric – in the short-run – can have a disproportionate (and positive) effect, even if it is not followed by discrete policy changes. The catch is that people have to think you’re serious and - it is hard to remember it now - but many Arabs, including Arab autocrats, started to suspect we were serious. In other words, the power of American rhetoric should not be underestimated.

In the long-run, however, rhetoric has to be backed up by policy, and, but it never was in the case of the Bush administration. The lesson here is that rhetoric is not enough on its own. That’s why I’ve always found it bizarre that some commentators developed a post-Bush aversion to American democracy rhetoric. The problem is not the rhetoric, but, rather, the failure to meet the expectations set by the rhetoric.


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What about Hamas and Hezbollah -- didn't they benefit from the rhetoric, only to be condemned for their democratic successes?
In other words the rhetoric was not only not followed up by positive policy changes, it was followed by alienation.

Memories of Woodrow Wilson.

The main problem with rhetoric is that it can't be backed up with action. The United States found this out in 1956 when it failed to stop the Soviet invasion of Hungary, even though the Eisenhower administration verbally supported the Hungarians. The US could find itself in a similiar situation if the uprising in Iran fails, and we need to work with the Iranians when it comes to their nuclear weapon program, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

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