The Tip of the Democracy Spear


The U.S. military doesn’t exactly have an unblemished record when it comes to promoting democracy. Is there a way to change that?


Two years on, the revolt in Bahrain is still smoldering, even if the opposition can’t marshal the same numbers of street demonstrators that it once did. The ruling Al-Khalifa dynasty has pulled out all the stops in its crackdown on the opposition — including pouring vast sums into its huge and brutally effective security apparatus. But it probably wouldn’t have survived as long it has without the support of the United States, which has so far declined to publicly reproach the kingdom for its lack of respect for basic human rights. The reason is simple: Bahrain is the home base of the Fifth Fleet, the enforcement arm of American interests in the Persian Gulf. Security, in short, trumps democracy.

Bahrain isn’t the only country where U.S. strategic interests seem to override a commitment to other people’s freedom. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates hardly qualify as democracies, but, like Bahrain, they all profit from the Pentagon’s desire to pursue its strategic interests throughout the region. Elsewhere in the Middle East, it’s the fight against terrorism that often seems to take priority over human rights. That’s one of the biggest motives behind the close relationships that the U.S. military maintains with authoritarian regimes in Iraq and Jordan. American generals are frequently accused of putting more effort into attacking al Qaeda and its allies than on shoring up nascent democratic openings in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen. To be sure, the soldiers’ primary job is to keep American citizens safe, not to build liberal societies in other parts of the world. Yet there’s also a powerful argument to be made that genuine security can only come in a world where leaders respect the rights of their citizens.

Nor does this apply only to the Middle East. The need to keep military supplies flowing to U.S. forces in Afghanistan has softened Washington’s policy toward dictatorial regimes in Central Asia, which allow those supplies to be transported through their territory. So the critics would seem to have good reason when they accuse America’s men in uniform of prizing stability over freedom in their doings overseas — sometimes in direct contradiction of efforts by civilian diplomats and aid workers to foster good governance and respect for rights.

Dennis Blair has heard plenty of those accusations in his day. Thirteen years ago, when he was a top-ranking admiral in charge of Pacific Command, critics in Congress charged him with maintaining friendly relations with Indonesia’s military when their troops were committing atrocities in East Timor. Blair, who retired from government service after a stint as Obama’s Director of National Intelligence three years ago, denies that he was soft on the generals in Jakarta. But the experience has prompted him to think about whether the U.S. military establishment can do more to promote democratic values in its dealings with other countries than it has in the past.

Those who question the depth of the U.S. government’s commitment to democracy as a foreign policy goal probably won’t be convinced by Blair’s ideas, which he aims to present in a new book that’s due to appear in the coming weeks. But the critics should give him a chance. The book, Military Engagement: Influencing Armed Forces Worldwide to Support Democratic Transition, is part of a project, directed by Blair for the Council for the Community of Democracies, to rethink how U.S. military power can be used to further democratic ends. (If you’re interested in the topic, be sure to check out the exhaustive reading list compiled by the project’s organizers.)

First of all, Blair suggests elevating the pursuit of democratic ideals to the status of a strategic objective for the U.S. military, on a par with the more traditional aims of protecting American economic and security interests around the world. That, he argues, would change the way that Pentagon representatives deal with their counterparts in other countries — an approach that he would like to see adopted by U.S. allies as well. “The military officers from the democracies should be working with their counterparts to support democratic development in their own countries,” he says. (And the military does have plenty of weight to throw around. In recent years, the Pentagon’s budget has been roughly 13 times the amount the government spends on civilian foreign policy.

In keeping with this, he also hopes to see democracy promotion become a feature of Pentagon’s routine interactions with foreign militaries (a little-noticed but vitally important tool of American foreign policy). In many places, from Venezuela to China, officers play a prominent political role, and Blair argues that it’s worth trying to leverage that reality to positive ends. When officers from other countries visit the U.S. on training and exchange programs, their American hosts shouldn’t just schlep them around to the usual military bases, he says, but also to town halls, newsrooms, and other locations that show democratic institutions in action. Course material should explicitly cover international humanitarian law, the rationale for civilian control of the military, and the practical mechanics of how democracies work. The point, he says, should be to show patriotically-minded officers why it might be in their own interests, and those of their armed forces, to support liberal values back at home.

But what about situations like the one in Bahrain, where the U.S. interest in maintaining its base seems to override the desire to press the local government on human rights? “Okay, in the real world we have a mix of interests,” says Blair. “But let’s not be exclusive about our interests. We should have both of these missions and not pretend that they’re completely irreconcilable.” In reality, he says, few U.S. partners are going to break off relations (or stop delivering oil) just because the Americans are nudging them to open up politically.

That’s probably true enough, but I’m not sure I completely buy the rest of the argument. Making democracy a bigger part of military-to-military exchanges sounds all well and good, but is it really going to have much of an effect? In many authoritarian regimes, liberalization threatens senior officers with a huge loss of power and prerogatives. In Egypt, Burma, or Pakistan, the military has entrenched business interests that make them loath to give up influence. Appealing to them to recognize the innate superiority of democracies is likely to have less weight than the realization that their own positions could be severely undermined by reform. And taking them on a tour of the Capitol isn’t about to change that calculus.

Blair acknowledges the problem, but argues that the militaries in such countries are often split between corrupt higher ranks and a younger, more idealistic class repulsed by their superiors’ malfeasance. A high-minded appeal to the second group’s patriotic instincts can thus bear fruit even when their ossified elders resist. (It was just such a group of younger officers, he points out, who helped to push President Ferdinand Marcos out of power in the Philippines in 1986.) One risk of this approach, of course, is that it might tend to promote the image of Washington as an inveterate meddler, even when the intentions involved are good. And perhaps it’s also worth remembering that younger officers aren’t always would-be democrats, yearning to be free — see Greece in the 1960s and 70s.

In Blair’s defense, it’s important to note that modesty is an important part of his vision. He’s not advocating grand nation-building experiments like the one in Iraq whose failure we’re commemorating this week, 10 years after the start of the war. It’s no accident that words like “gradual,” “incremental,” and “pragmatic” permeate his conversation. And he certainly doesn’t share the neo-conservative fondness for toppling autocrats by force. Indeed, Blair goes out of his way to praise people like Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, advocates of “non-violent conflict” who strive to promote gradual, peaceful resistance to authoritarian regimes. (For what it’s worth, Blair has also criticized his ex-boss’s penchant for drone strikes against terrorists, saying that the Obama administration’s remote execution of the war on terror does more harm than good by galvanizing anti-American sentiment in the countries targeted.)

I doubt that closing the gap between America’s strategic interests and its idealistic longing to spread democratic values will be as easy as Blair seems to suggest. And he acknowledges that his effort is partly motivated by politics — specifically the need to insulate the Pentagon from congressional critics who assail it for inadequate attention to human rights. But what’s most striking about the ideas he’s articulating is the fact that he’s saying them in the first place. This is something new, and it’s definitely to be welcomed.