Q&A Friday #17: Is It Hypocritical To Say We Support Democracy While We Deal With Dictators?

Question: “The recent uprising in Uzbekistan and the brutal crackdown ordered by the Uzbek premier Karimov – is that his name?! – has highlighted an obviously hypocritical element of US foreign policy, where support or at least benign acceptance is given to this particular tyrant whilest other are condemend in the strongest terms.

The problem for conservatives must surely be that where the promotion of democracy has now become our raison d’etre in the Middle East, this charge of double standards is not only more damaging theoretically than in past struggles such as the Cold War – where realism was, by neccesity, the dominant ideology – but also imperils the chances of winning over popular support for democracy amongst Arab populaces, all suspicious of America by nature and thus susceptible to arguments of critics based on the double standards of American foreign policy.

It seems to me that conservatives have a choice. They can either wed themselves to ideas of universal democracy and idealism – achieving this consistently by withdrawing support from the likes of Karimov and the House of Saud, but then endagering global strategic position and access to resources – or focus primarily on the retention of American control and influence around the globe to combat Al-Qaeda and others, power exercised in part by friendly despots, and where critically, national security takes precedence over the promotion of democracy.

I ask these questions in part because I want to address this fundamental question of foreign policy which conservatives – in part due to the obvious double standards – would rather ignore. If conservatives fail in addressing this question properly then not only will liberals use it to bash us over the head with abondoned glee, but we will in part run the risk of serious set backs or worse in the war on terror.

Realism, Idealism, or am I ignoring the benefits of the current ‘Third Way’ approach? Which do you reckon it should be?” — JMH_1986

Answer: There are two mistaken assumptions in your question.

The first is what I like to think of as the “fairy tale fallacy,” that in every country, there are good guys and bad guys and we have only to make the right choice between them.

In Uzbekistan, for example, you are correct that Karimov is a brutal dictator. However, the choice in that country is not currently between Karimov and democracy, it’s between Karimov and radical Islamists. Neither group is particularly appealing, but out of the two, I’d prefer Karimov.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t push for Democratic reforms in Uzbekistan or support a flowering democratic movement in that country; in fact we have funded pro-democracy groups and withdrawn aid from Uzbekistan over the lack of the democracy in that country, but just because Karimov is a rotten guy, it doesn’t follow that we should blindly support anyone who opposes him.

Secondly, you seem to believe that we have the option to simply choose not to work with any non-democratic countries. That’s ludicrous. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest supplier of oil. Pakistan is, and continues to be, instrumental in the fight against Al-Qaeda. China is one of our largest trade partners and they sit on the UN Security Council. The idea that we can simply cut off all contact with these countries — and others like them — until they become democracies is nutty.

What we’re doing — quite successfully, I might add — is supporting democracy when we can, where we can, with what we have. Because of that policy, Afghanistan and Iraq are free countries today, Syria has pulled out of Lebanon, Libya has given up their WMDs, and we’ve seen at least some small, but significant political progress in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. I’d also add that we backed the “flower revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, in Kyrgyzstan, although to be fair, we seem to have had much more of an impact in the Middle East than Eastern Europe.

And keep in mind, Bush still has 3 1/2 years left to keep pushing for freedom around the world. It seems to me that we’re on the right track in this area and I think Bush has made excellent foreign policy decisions, especially where it relates to strengthening democracy around the world…

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