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Daniel Korski interviews Paul Wolfowitz on Coffee House, The Spectator Blog
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Nobody is as associated with George W Bush’s drive to promote freedom and democracy in the Middle East as former US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. His role in the Iraq War, and belief that the US should promote democracy in a part of the world better known for authoritarian rulers, remains controversial to this day.
But now that the Middle East is being rocked by pro – democracy protests – as people demand freedom, employment, and an end to tyranny – is this advocate of democracy finally being proven right? And what does he think about the dangers of democratic transitions? Dr Wolfowitz kindly agreed to answer a few questions about democracy and the Middle East:
Daniel Korski: The Middle East seems to have been taken over by a democratic spirit not seen before, with Tunisia’s Ben Ali forced from power and now Hosni Mubarak looking increasingly vulnerable. But it has obviously put the West in a bit of a bind, as it fears what the new kinds of regimes will bring. Should the West be worried? In many countries, after all, the voice of opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood – and they may take advantage of the events, even if they did not inaugurate and control them initially. Is the price of the Muslim Brotherhood in power worth accepting to set people free?
Paul Wolfowitz: Let’s be clear. We didn’t set the Tunisian people free. They did it for themselves. We should consider ourselves lucky that the Islamists can’t claim any of the credit, but neither can the Western democracies. And the Islamists are certainly hurrying to get into the game. The question now is whether the West can recover from its past inaction in order to be able to have a positive influence on the outcome.
A somewhat similar situation is developing in Egypt, although the Muslim Brotherhood is much stronger there, so the risk of a bad outcome is greater. But there, too, the strength of popular feeling seems to have taken them by surprise and the predominant sentiment in the streets is not strongly Islamist.
DK: President Obama (but also the British government) has been hesitant in his reaction to the events in the Middle East. One Foreign Office minister even said the key for the UK was stability. In your view, should Western governments stand on the sidelines or offer more encouragement to the protesters and their demand for freedom?
PW: With so much at stake, it is a mistake to be sitting on the sidelines. Western governments can be a positive force on behalf of genuine freedom and against attempts to impose a new kind of tyranny of the Islamist variety. But we can’t do that if we are seen as propping up a hated tyrant, or worse, encouraging the kind of bloody crackdown that could at best produce an artificial “stability”for a relatively short period of time. The possibility of a bad outcome is very real, particularly because we did nothing to encourage more evolutionary change earlier, but I believe we have a better chance of a good outcome if we support positive change than if we support the status quo.
DK: A few years ago you talked about “the power of the democratic idea”. Since your time in office, however, US support for democracy – promotion has been on the wane, both rhetorically and financially, while many worry that the West cannot afford to talk so loudly about its values, as we’ve become reliant on non – democratic regimes such as China. What place do you think democracy – promotion should take – in our foreign policy and aid programmes – and how do we deal with the power that non – democratic but powerful investors like China have e.g in Sub – Saharan Africa?
PW: I’ve been involved with democratic transitions for several decades, going back to the remarkable changes that took place in East Asia in the 1980’s – in the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan – followed by the incredible changes in Central and Eastern Europe and even, for a time, in Ukraine and Russia itself. That period also saw the demise of most of the right – wing military dictatorships in Latin America. Then came another wave in places as different as South Africa and Indonesia and Serbia. Few of these countries would qualify as Westminster – style democracies, but most are far better off as a result of these democratic transitions, and so are we. Even though we often have to do business with undemocratic regimes – and even though some of those regimes do deliver economic progress for their people – it is a mistake to retreat from supporting democratic reform.
DK: Many of the protesters in Tunis and Cairo – and more of their international supporters – are clear that today’s events are unrelated to the Iraq War and in fact represent a different paradigm, namely one of endogenous democratic change. But what in your view is the link between the invasion of Iraq and the events in the Middle East today?
PW: We did not go to war in Iraq or Afghanistan to promote democracy, but rather to remove regimes that were dangerous to us and to the world. Having done that, we have attempted to enable the Iraqi and Afghan people to enjoy the benefits of free and representative government. Those efforts have enjoyed mixed success, but we would have done worse – and been much more deserving of criticism – had we attempted to reimpose some new dictator. So far, Tunisia and Egypt seem to be following the paradigm of the long list of countries I mentioned earlier, from the Philippines and Chile to Indonesia and Georgia. They are proud, and rightly so, that they have had no help from the outside. Tragically, Tunisia probably enjoyed better conditions for a peaceful democratic transition than any other Arab country, but Bin Ali suppressed that possibility ruthlessly. Hopefully now Tunisia will continue to demonstrate in a positive way that Arabs too can progress through democratic reform.
DK: The on – folding events in the Middle East would seem to suggest that the premise of your policies – that people in the region yearn for freedom – was right, but the means, military power, were costly, deadly and, some would say, wrong. Did you pick the right means and allies (including in Washington) to carry out the policy of promoting democracy in the region?
PW: It is wrong to say that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were fought to promote democracy. Whether right or wrong, they were fought to protect ourselves and others from dangerous regimes, but once those regimes were removed we could not reimpose dictators. At the same time, we did believe that peaceful democratic change, of the kind I’ve mentioned earlier, could help to change the conditions in the Middle East that were breeding terrorists and support for terrorism That is why President Bush spoke strongly, as for example in London in November 2003, that “Your nation and mine, in the past, have been willing to make a bargain, to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability. Yet this bargain did not bring stability or make us safe. It merely bought time, while problems festered and ideologies of violence took hold.” Unfortunately, in his second term President Bush seemed to retreat from pursuing his “freedom agenda”and President Obama has retreated further. But that earlier analysis of the false stability brought by tyranny seems even more accurate today.
DK: You have previously rejected the label “neoconservative”and, in a Washington Post interview some years ago, you said you did not want people to think that you “believe that the military is the solution to most of the world’s problems.” Yet during your time in office, the role of the US military in promoting democracy was clearly prominent. Looking at the experiences of the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan, do you think the US needs re – think the role the military plays in large – scale democracy – promoting, nation – building projects?
PW: Support for peaceful reform by the people themselves is the right way to promote democracy, not the use of force. To repeat again, we did not go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq to promote democracy. But when force is used to remove a dangerous or genocidal regime – as happened not only in Afghanistan and Iraq but also in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Liberia – we have little choice but to help people to establish some form of representative government. In the very interview that you cite I explained that I believed in an “evolutionary rather than revolutionary”approach to promoting democratic reform and specifically that “Egypt does not have to hold free elections tomorrow, but it could make a start by not throwing prominent human rights activists in jail.” If they had started that kind of reform seven years ago, we might have a happier situation today. We may not like some of the change that is coming, but I still believe, as I said then, that for the Arab world not to change at all is “a formula for eventual catastrophe.”
Paul Wolfowitz is a visiting scholar at AEI.
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