Democracy Promotion: The Bush Doctrine in the Age of Obama

Democracy Promotion: The Bush Doctrine in the Age of Obama

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Elliott Abrams
Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Kenneth Wollack
President, National Democratic Institute

Moderator: Doyle McManus
Columnist, The Los Angeles Times



Elliott Abrams began by noting that we have been promoting democracy for decades under Presidents of both parties. Americans do believe that the country stands for democracy. Therefore, the U.S. should support democracies and democrats.  However, it is always the case that the U.S. government bureaucracies oppose democracy promotion and human rights advocacy. Bureaucrats and Foreign Service Officers usually have priorities other than democracy promotion and human rights. Abrams pointed out that left-wing human rights groups have not forcefully criticized the Obama administration for getting rid of several human rights positions in the State Department and the intelligence community.

Kenneth Wollack credited President Bush for helping to create a public space in the Middle East for more open and honest discourse. At the same time, he argued that there was an inconsistency in the administration’s promoting democracy in countries viewed as threats while not promoting democracy in those seen as U.S. allies.

Abrams said that the pinnacle of the Bush Doctrine was Bush’s Second Inaugural Address. However, he said that the focus on human rights issues diminished as the second Bush term progressed and argued that Bush left democracy promotion to the State Department, which didn’t carry it out. 

Abrams argued that Obama’s speech in Cairo played down democracy promotion. Disagreeing with Abrams, however, Wollack argued that Obama’s speech was an important gesture to promote democracy across the region.  Wollack added that Obama’s democracy promotion agenda remains a work in progress.  Both panelists agreed that Obama’s administration’s policy toward Lebanon has been a great success, but Abrams argued that Obama has abandoned promoting human rights in Egypt and Syria as a result of the wish to reach a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.


MR. FLY: Okay, we are going to get started here with the 5 o'clock session. If you could take your seats, please. Okay, the 5 o'clock session we have a panel on "Democracy Promotion: The Bush Doctrine in the Age of Obama." And our hope is that we can look back and have a discussion about the last eight years in the democracy promotion agenda.

To moderate this panel, we are very lucky to have with us Doyle McManus, who is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. For more than 30 years, he has been a reporter on national and international issues from Washington, the Middle East and Europe and has covered every presidential election campaign since 1984. He is a four time winner of the National Press Club's Edwin Hood Award for reporting on U.S. foreign policy, most recently in 2004 for articles on Iraq. And he is the author or co-author of three books.

I am going to turn it over to Doyle now to introduce the panelists and get this underway.

MR. McMANUS: Thank you very much, Jamie. And thanks to all of you here in the audience who have stuck with us throughout the afternoon. I will do my best to make the latest panel of the afternoon also the liveliest, although beating Speaker Gingrich is going to give us a pretty high bar to get over.

Almost five years ago, George W. Bush opened his second term with an inaugural address that made an arresting and bold argument, that a central goal of American foreign policy should be to end tyranny in the world. Eight months ago, Barack Obama began his presidency with a very different speech, designed, to be sure, for a very different moment but with a markedly different weight given to the promotion of democracy.

Now, the contrast of course goes well beyond two speeches given at two different times. On China, Secretary Clinton has said, "Concerns about human rights cannot interfere with cooperation on other issues." In Iran, the administration appeared to hesitate to condemn the irregularities in the June election but then quickly condemned the repression of protestors. The question of the Obama Administration's approach to democracy and human rights is very much an open one. Now, that is not to say that the Bush record was one of moving seamlessly from triumph to triumph. There were questions all along about whether President Bush's approach worked, whether its combination of assertive rhetoric and assertive military policies actually discredited the idea of democracy in parts of the world.

Our two speakers will give us I hope not merely a discussion but a healthy debate. Elliott Abrams was present at the creation of the Reagan Administration's robust policy on human rights and democracy, actually more than present at the creation, he was one of those pressing in that direction when the Reagan Administration wasn't entirely ready to go there. He has been an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan Administration, deputy national security advisor in the George W. Bush administration. He is now a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Kenneth Wollack has been a leading voice in the Democratic Party for sustained bipartisan policies to promote democracy around the world. He has served as legislative director of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC. And I should add a columnist on foreign policy for the Los Angeles Times. But for the past 23 years, he has led the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, and he has been president of NDI for 16 years. And I tried to comfort Ken a little earlier by assuring him that everyone in this room is a democrat, small "d" democrats.

Here are the questions that I hope and am sure our panelists will take up:

First, a question Elliott posed earlier to Speaker Gingrich that I suspect we'll get past very quickly, and that is should we be promoting democracy?

Second, let's take a look at the Bush record. What were the successes of the Bush doctrine, what were the failures, what were the shortcomings?

And, third, is there an Obama doctrine developing? How would you describe it and is it a viable strategy for promoting democracy and human rights around the world?

To start us off, Elliott Abrams.

MR. ABRAMS: Thanks, Doyle. Where to begin? Let me just say a few things first about the first question: Should we be promoting democracy? My answer is yes, we have been for decades under presidents of both parties. And I would argue that it would be very hard to get public and congressional approval for a foreign policy that was openly, honestly indifferent to the fate of democracy and human rights around the world, partly because I think you could argue in many cases that the obvious immediate benefit to the U.S. is visible, and partly because I think Americans do believe, though there is an isolationist strain and though people are not looking for trouble, they do believe that the country stands for something just as the French believe their country the [inaudible]. Americans believe we stand for something in the world, which is not commerce and it is not a strong military. What we stand for above all is democracy. And therefore we have to be on the side of those people who are fighting for democracy in their own country.

Now, that leaves a great deal of space for debate about, well, how do you do that? In what cases do you do that? But you start I think from the proposition that we are on their side. And therefore indifference on the part of the United States which greatly undercuts them, I think is ultimately going to be a very unpopular policy at home.

Now, I want to say one thing about where we are now, a couple of things about where we are now. It is always the case that the permanent bureaucracy opposes human rights and democracy promotion policies. When I say "permanent bureaucracy," I mean the State Department and AID. They don't do that because they are people without a conscience, they do that because they have other priorities.

Most people at AID, for example, went there because they want to provide for children's health and education and clean water. And when somebody comes along who says, "I want to have a fight with this government of Country 'X' because they put a newspaper editor in jail," your AID mission director is likely to say, "Wait a minute. We are cooperating in all sorts of wonderful things. You are going to get in the way."

The same thing is true for most foreign service officers. They have a number of assignments now, but fundamentally they are political officers. Fundamentally, they believe that their job is to have smooth, easily manageable relations with the other country, whether that other country is a democracy or a fairly vicious dictatorship.

So how do you counteract that? The only way to counteract that is to have within the bureaucracy built in pro-democracy, pro-human rights lobbies, namely, the Human Rights Bureau at State and the Democracy Directorate at the NSC. They are very important. They are always weaker than the regional bureaus, almost as a matter of definition. The regional bureaus or directorates are the real powers, but they are there. They are at the meetings. They can fight.

It is therefore a gigantic mistake on the part of the Obama Administration to have dismantled the Democracy Directorate at the NSC, first. And to have what I think thus far is proving to be a weak democracy bureau or Human Rights Bureau in the State Department because that is where that voice has to come from unless you are extremely lucky and you get someone like a Dan Fried as assistant secretary for Europe, which he was in the second Bush Administration. It is not so common. You had it with Paul Wolfowitz when he was assistant secretary for Asia in the second Reagan Administration. It is atypical. And therefore the weakening of the built in human rights and democracy lobbies in the government bureaucracy is a mistake.

One more word about where we are today. Normally, if that mistake were committed and therefore the kind of bureaucratic lobby was weakened, or if the administration, whatever administration, pursued a policy that didn't seem to be all that interested in human rights and democracy, the NGOs which support those causes would scream bloody murder. You can do a thought experiment. How would groups like Amnesty or Human Rights Watch have reacted had the Bush White House eliminated the Democracy Directorate at the NSC? I think they would have flipped out. But they are silent. They are silent about this question. Why? Not clear. Partly, I think it is left/right partisanship. They don't feel comfortable attacking an administration that is left to center because they are left to center, almost all of them.

Secondly, because of personal friendships. That is it is just a fact of life that people from an organization like Amnesty or Human Rights Watch are going to have more friends in the Obama Administration than they had in the George W. Bush Administration. Nobody likes to attack his friends, so they don't do it.

Thirdly, I would say, the last thing I will say is hark back to Speaker Gingrich, and that is there is an ideology at work here, and the ideology is that this country having so many flaws, we do not have the right to lecture people about the flaws in their own countries. We ought to be more humble about that. Add it all together and you have a situation I think where those groups are much more quiet than they should be about the diminishing role of human rights and democracy policy today.

MR. McMANUS: Thank you, Elliott. Ken Wollack?

MR. WOLLACK: Thank you very, very much, Doyle. Having reviewed the line-up for this forum, I have the distinct impression that I was included to provide a modicum of balance, particularly to those who have already and unequivocally pronounced the abandonment of democracy promotion under the Obama Administration. I will try not to disappoint, and to paraphrase Mark Twain, I believe a pronouncement on the death of democracy promotion is premature and greatly exaggerated.

For me, since I have spent 30 of my 36 years in Washington on bipartisan causes, 23 at NDI, this is a very personal issue for me. And I believe I have known Elliott for all of those 36 years. And now I thought I would provide a little bit of background perspective on this issue, which brings us to the issues of today.

In the last half century, since the United States has become a super power, we have viewed the world through an ever-changing series of foreign policy optics. Either our own political process or international challenges or both have conspired to bring about each change.

During the late 1970s and the 1980s, we began another such change. This one less the discovery of something new than the return to an optic once widely admired for the clarity of purpose with which we saw ourselves in the world. And in this sense the new democratization optic was less of a redirection than a reaffirmation. And the reaffirmation can be traced forward from the Atlantic Charter, from the Marshall Plan to the preamble of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act to President Carter's determination that international human rights be the cornerstone of his foreign policy.

President Reagan in his 1983 speech at Westminster broadened the emphasis from a concern for individual victims of governmental abuse to a commitment to foster and develop democracy. And the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy, NDI, and the three other core institutes was the result of that speech and that initiative.

In the Clinton Administration, you had democracy promotion as one of the three pillars of U.S. foreign policy, and my chairman, Madeline Albright, when she was Secretary of State established the Community of Democracy.

It is no longer possible to know precisely to what extent U.S. efforts preceded, stimulated or were themselves fostered by the profound global changes that began in the late 1970s with the dramatic increase in the number of democracies worldwide. American foreign policy may have been a catalyst for this democratic surge but the post-war recovery of major democracies in Europe and Japan also contributed to a wider appreciation for the democratic form of social management.

The return of democracy in Spain and Portugal in the mid-1970s greatly influenced the democratic revolution in Latin America a decade later. Increased travel, cultural exchange programs, the communications revolution and trade patterns, all indicators of interdependence, conspired to create interest in systems permitting more freedom of choice for the individual citizen. And the strong trend towards democracy in the 1980s reinforced the theory that human nature will ultimately seek some form of free expression.

A turning point for U.S. policy I believe came during the 1980s when an important lesson was learned about political transformation in countries like Chile, Nicaragua and the Philippines, that political forces on the far left and far right enjoyed a mutually-reinforcing relationship, drawing strength from each other and in the process, marginalizing the democratic center.

Prospects for peace and stability only emerged once democratic politic parties and civic groups were able to offer a viable alternative to the two extremes. And in this regard in the U.S., Republicans and Democrats join forces to champion their cause. Elliott Abrams, Richard Armitage, Ambassador Steve Bosworth, Harry Barnes, Paul Wolfowitz, all played an important role in these seminal events.

And even the traditional economic development community began to reassess. For decades it was hoped that economic aid could achieve the kind of economic growth and opportunity in the developing world that leads to social stability. Even when successful, this emphasis on economic growth often lost momentum because it was not accompanied by political growth.

Now, there were the naysayers, those who argue that social development must come first and democracy evolve from a middle class and the gradual creation of liberal institutions.

I recall a cable written by a respected U.S. diplomat a decade ago who reminded his colleagues that our sole focus on economic development was once the rationale for two generations of dictators in the developing world. Only a few followed good economic policies. For every Lik Wong Yu or Park Chung-hee, there were many others. Torrijos, Marcos, Vanda, Numari, the Argentine and Nigerian juntas and others. In addition to committing large-scale human rights abuses, these leaders ran their economies into the ground and failed to provide the institutional means to address societal divisions, which is why they rose so violently in their wake.

For those of us who have dealt with these issues on the ground for the past 25 years, we have learned, not surprisingly, that we must, and we are expected to be engaged on the political and economic front simultaneously. Politics and economics and today inexorably linked and in many places people are in a demanding mood in both arenas.

It is ironic, therefore, that at a time when democracy and liberal principles often govern the discourse between and within nations, and when many autocrats who cling to power find it necessary to speak in the democratic idiom, that democracy promotion should be such a hotly debated topic at home.

It is also sadly ironic that the previous administration, which had placed democracy promotion at the forefront of its foreign policy created such controversy over what had been a bipartisan ambition.

Sadly, because until 2003, President Bush's effective use of the bully pulpit, particularly in the Middle East, had provided an important measure of political space for reformers. Up until then, the Middle East was largely immune from the new democratization optic of which I spoke earlier. In fact, democratic norms and freedoms increasingly became part of the public discourse and demands in the region. And even where democratic progress was scarce, the language of debate was changing, and not a small achievement.

The sources of this controversy are familiar to most in this audience, but let me just mention a few. The first was an unpopular war and the President's conflation between democracy and Iraq, leaving the American public and the international community confused about both the purpose and means of democracy promotion and the rationale for the war itself. By the President's own design, Iraq became the poster child of the freedom agenda. I have a bumper sticker in my office that reads, "Be nice to America or we will bring democracy to your country." And when a problem can be reduced to a bumper sticker, you know you have a problem.

Then there was the huge gap between the soaring rhetoric of the President's freedom agenda and the inconsistencies in the application of that agenda. This unfortunately created the impression that democracy was a club to be used against regimes, autocratic regimes unfriendly to the U.S. but not against those regimes with autocratic tendencies who were friendly. This was most notable in the case of Pakistan where the coup leader, General Musharaf, was often described as our "indispensable ally."

The President's sharp rhetoric only highlighted these inconsistencies. And even funding for democracy in Iraq was not a priority of the administration but rather the result of a bipartisan Senate initiative led by one of the harshest critics of the war, Senator Edward Kennedy.

Also, the tone and language of the President's oratory seemed at times to imply inadvertently that democracy was an American export commodity, that we were not joining something larger than ourselves. And this problem was exacerbated as the President's unpopularity grew both at home and abroad.

In a meeting that my chairman had with the President, among all the formers, the former Secretaries of State and Defense, she was walking with the President back to the Oval Office and commented how much she supported the freedom agenda, as the former Secretary of State who believed deeply and passionately in these issues and is chairman of NDI, but she said, "I have one bone to pick." She said, "Mr. President, you act as though you invented democracy." She said, "You didn't invent democracy, I invented democracy." But it was a point I think worth making.

Now, these controversies also exist in the context of the democracy push-back. With more sophisticated and wealthier regimes with autocratic tendencies that fear losing or even sharing power, and who are moving against independent and opposition groups in their own countries and seeking to sever linkages between these groups and the outside world. And in this growing interdependent world, these regimes are communicating and cooperating with each other.

And at home we have witnessed the emergence of national security Democrats and realists on the Republican side who given the myriad of threats against our interests seem to care more about what countries do outside their borders than inside their countries. "It is fine to push democracy in Malawi," some would say, "but not here, not in these big important places." And still some in the traditional development community would argue not to pursue democracy in Malawi. Let us focus on issues people really care about: jobs, food, shelter. Democracy can come at the end of the development road, that somehow wanting to put food on the table and having a political voice in your country are mutually exclusive.

Another phenomenon that impacts the future of democracy promotion strategy is the failure of new fledgling democracies to deliver on quality of life issues for their citizens. Often a new democratic regime inherits the legacy of its non-democratic predecessor: poverty, disease, corruption. We now learn from Branislav, Mr. Remick, the axiom that "Democracy is by no means a process that goes from triumph to triumph, nor is it exempt from creating the very conditions that undermine it." Therefore, if these new democracies fail to deliver, people will either go to the streets, which is not the place to resolve public policy issue, or vote for the likes of Hugo Chavez.

This, I believe, represents the next generation of challenges to democracy and requires greater, not fewer linkages between development strategies and Democracy promotion. All of these issues are undoubtedly coming into play in the deliberations of the Obama Administration. But the issue for policymakers is how, not whether, Democracy promotion is part of our policy agenda.

In conclusion, I would just say as we parse statements, analyze style, interpret meetings and diplomatic overtures, and try to predict broad policy shifts, particularly as they relate to development, please at least take the following into account. First, if this conference had taken place exactly eight years ago on September 21st, 2001, we would not be talking about the Bush's freedom agenda, which only goes to show that events on the ground greatly influence administrations.

Two, if you look at where the money is and follow the money, if you look at the Administration's 2010 budget request compared to the Bush Administration's budget request, a 20% increase in funding for the National Endowment for Democracy, a hundred percent increase in the Middle East partnership initiative, nearly 100% increase in the millennium challenge corporation; and, in many countries around the world, looking at the Democracy allocation you find an increase in funding.

Three, there have been four major speeches now. Vice President Biden in Munich, and the President's speeches in Prague, Cairo and Akra. And the visit to Ghana was chosen specifically because of its democratic advances. And all of those speeches democracy played a central role. Four, a move to integrate development and democracy, which I don't think should be viewed as a negative if it's done in the proper way, but it also recognizes the new challenges to nascent and fledgling democracies around the world.

Five, recognizing that the administration is attempting to create a new enabling environment, which I believe, if successful, will make interventions perhaps more effective on these issues, and perhaps if we look at this nuanced approach, we look at the Cairo speech. We look at the visits to Lebanon by the Vice President, by the Secretary of State before the elections, the willingness to talk to the Syrians. They very well have had a more positive impact on the results in Lebanon and Iran than a more assertive, more partisan, more vocal and more strident approach.

MR. MCMANUS: Ken, thank you. And thank you for taking the bull by the horns. I was afraid there that we might have an hour marked with just comity and consensus. Our fears have been dispelled.

Elliott, let me just ask you for just a moment to respond to Ken on the Bush Administration's Freedom agenda and its conduct of that; and, particularly to answer the question I posed a few minutes ago, which in brief was one of the lessons of that experience. What worked, and what didn't?

MR. ABRAMS: We have a partial agreement on that in the sense I think the highpoint of the Freedom agenda in the sense was the second inaugural and in some cases at least in Egypt, as an example, that comes to mind. In 2005, U.S. government policy followed the inaugural. They're very tough on human rights and democracy issues, but in the last couple of years there was clearly a diminishing energy that went into this. Why?

I'm not sure why. It may have been that the President was taken up himself mostly with Iraq and the surge, and turning around what could have been a defeat there in turning it into a victory. And I would say in a sense left the Democracy policy to the State Department, which did not carry it out, and I'll give you an example. I think you mentioned -- maybe I'm imagining it -- Prague.

But there was a meeting in Prague that was organized by Natasha Rodsky of dissidents and democratic leaders. And the President in his speech in Prague said, "I'm going to instruct every ambassador -- my ambassadors, American Ambassadors -- to meet with dissidents and fighters for Democracy. And, if they're in prison, go to the prisons. And if you can't go to the prison, go visit their families. It's a wonderful segment of the speech. And the State Department didn't do it.

There was no cable sent to the Embassies saying you are instructed to do x, y and z, until some months later -- not weeks later -- the White House finally pointed out. Actually, it was the press. "The Washington Post" got onto it and they were about to do a story, and so we said to the State Department this is very embarrassing, and at that point the table was set.

MR. WOLLACK: President Bush thought he was a dissident within his own administration.

MR. ABRAMS: So I would say there was, unfortunately, sadly, diminishing energy. Now, I'm kind of blaming it on the State Department. If you look at the President's own activities, by which I mean his speeches, his meetings, you know, go out of your way to detour to Prague to attend this meeting. Or, how often did the President meet with people like the Dalai Lama or Chinese dissidents, or groups of dissidents. That did not diminish in the second term. I think it was elevated in the second term. But what was lacking really was the institutional follow-through. Whether there will be institutional follow-through in this administration, I'm more dubious than Ken. Because, you know, you talk about the budget, for example.

Well, the fact that the budget for the NID and presumably then IRI and NDI is up would be a great thing if Congress actually passes that. MEPI is unclear -- Middle East Partnership Initiative -- because as we've so much of the "democracy funding," it isn't clear how much of it is democracy. To the extent that you leave this to the embassies, you will sometimes find embassies. I am exaggerating slight here, but only slightly. Figure that we'll build a road.

Well, people have to travel down this road to go vote, so it's actually building democracy to build this road. So you have to be very, very careful at what embassies and AID missions are calling democracy. They have very promiscuous definitions.

MR. MCMANUS: Elliott, let me hold you on the question of the Bush Administration though for just one more moment; and, in effect, what you've said is that your principal critique of the second Bush Administration would be that it didn't do enough Democracy promotion. The mainstream democratic critique of that administration was not that it simply did too much democracy promotion.

That's a caricature, but that it made a terrible mistake by linking democracy promotion with armed interventions; and, thus, in some quarters discredited the idea of democracy promotion or at the very least allowed despotism overseas to be linked there to democrats or to call there democrats.

MR. ABRAMS: You know, dictators will use every argument they have; and, if the Iraq war is unpopular, they'll say, well, see, that's democracy promotion. But, I mean, opposition to the Iraq war is not why Hosni Mubarak won't hold a free election. He will seize upon any excuse that happens to arrive that year. So, you know, actually, President Bush used to say that there were several examples in the Middle East of where Democracy might appear soon; and the three he used to mention were Iraq and Lebanon and Palestine, where he was hopeful of creating in all three places democratic models. And I think if you ask yourself where have there been free elections in the Arab world, it's hard to get, first of all, beyond Iraq as a model-free election. So I think that is an excuse that tyrants use. I don't actually think that it's a reason, and here is a place where Ken and I disagree.

You use the term "enabling environment." You know, when you go to Cairo and meet all smiles with Mubarak, and give a Cairo speech that actually plays down Democracy, I think that's creating an enabling environment for Mubarak to continue what he has continued now for decades. It's not pressure. I mean, I'll put it a different way. During the last four years of the Bush Administration President Mubarak didn't come to Washington because he was so annoyed at the pressure on human rights Democracy. He had a very happy visit to Washington now, which it seems to me is not necessarily a good thing for Democrats in Egypt.

MR. MCMANUS: Ken, all yours. Does the Obama strategy of engagement with countries whose governments are noxious end up becoming an enabling environment for the wrong people?

MR. WOLLACK: Well, it's not only enabling environment -- doesn't only describe relationships with countries that are autocratic or have autocratic tendencies. It also creates a global, enabling environment in which you can garner some support from others when there are needed interventions on these issues.

It was true with regard to Mubarak's visit. Elliott points to the welcome for Mubarak, but he also received that message in the last several years of the Bush Administration that there was a change of tactics by the previous administration where public criticism of the regime in this area was quickly dropped, and that sent a message to Mubarak.

At the same time, to give the previous administration credit, they also utilized systems, broke the bilateral agreement that had guided our policy for many, many years and decided to give funds from USAID to groups that had not been sanctioned by the Egyptian government. It was a bold move. It was something that groups like ours, many others had been arguing for, for 10 years; that the Egyptian government should not determine where U.S. taxpayers' dollars should go. And that was a huge decision on the part of the administration.

This administration has decided to continue that; however, they've decided to move that account from the U.S. AID account to the MEPI account. We'll see what happens, but that is their intent. I think it is way too early to determine the impact of these moves, of the policy of engagement.

I do believe though that it had a positive impact in Iran. I do believe the Cairo speech had an impact among Iranians, who, because I think it sent a signal about joining something larger than yourselves, being part of the international community.

I think that the approach that was taken to the Lebanese elections that was done at the same time we were willing to open up a dialog with the Syrians, the visit by Biden to Beirut two weeks before the election preceded by the visit of the Secretary a couple weeks before that, in which I believe was adroitly. That sent a signal to the Lebanese and I think it also had a positive impact. And I think a more positive impact than if we had stood up, if we had decided to divide the electorate into friends of the United States and adversaries of the United States, I think the repercussions would have been greater. So I think it's too early to tell, but I think events on the ground will also influence policies in the future.

I think that the President's speech in Akra also sent a powerful message in Africa about Democratic governance and Democracy, the compliment for groups in Zimbabwe that stood up to Mugabwe and exposed the fraud in the election. So this is not a unidimensional administration. It's an administration still trying to figure these issues out -- how they're going to talk about these issues -- how they're going to implement these policies; but, we're nine months into this administration and I don't think that there is any tendency or any desire on the part of the administration saying this is a policy that we're going to abandon.

The question is how do we approach it and how do we talk about it; and, how do we deal with these issues.

MR. MCMANUS: To be deliberately provocative for a moment, I'm going to sum up your argument as watch what they do, not what they don't say.

MR. WOLLACK: And watch what the effects of policy are.

MR. MCMANUS: Do you have any concern that the downgraded rhetorical side of this gives less added comfort to Democratic forces than would otherwise be the case?

MR. WOLLACK: Well, people six months ago or eight months ago were saying that the administration was refusing to use the 'D' word. That democracy was not part of the vocabulary of the new administration, that they were looking for different words to describe this. But, when you look at the Vice President's speech in Munich, if you look at the Cairo speech -- you look at the Prague speech and you look at Ghana -- the language, the rhetoric, was very strong and consistent in all of those speeches.

MR. ABRAMS: Can I jump in? I think one place where we do agree is Lebanon. And given credit where credit is due, I actually think Vice President Biden's trip to Lebanon shortly before the election was a terrific, perfectly timed gesture, and everything he said there was exactly right. On the other hand, Syria, I mean, I think the administration is in a sense abandoning human rights in Syria. When the Bush Administration, we didn't go to Syria. We now have six reasonably high level visits to Damascus -- two by CENTCOM people -- four by people from the NSC to date. I don't believe you've heard a word. Put aside the CENTCOM guys.

From those who went, including George Mitchell, about human rights in Syria, which is of course a far worse situation than in Lebanon, now why not? Well, I actually think because they have started out so early with the disease that the Bush Administration caught only at the end, which is the view that we're going to get a Middle East peace deal and we're going to get it now. Because once you decide that then everything else is secondary.

Mubarak: free elections in Egypt; yeah, but he's helpful on Middle East peace. Syria: vicious, despicable, violent regime; yeah. But, you know, aside, that happened in the last couple of years of Bush, and it is happening already, I would say, in the Obama Administration. I worry about this in the case of Russia. You know, the reset button may be being pushed with respect to Russia. It doesn't seem to be being pushed with respect to human rights in Russia.

MR. WOLLACK: If you look at the President's visit to Moscow, every one gives him great credit for that trip; who he met with, his remarks there meeting with civil society, meeting with the opposition political parties. Everyone believed that was handled beautifully. He sent a message to the government and he sent a message to the people. He sent a message to civil society and he sent a message to the opposition. And from talking to civil society people in Russia, talking to the opposition parties, I think they were quite satisfied with that visit.

MR. ABRAMS: I hope that's right. I mean, the question in a certain sense becomes, and this is a very difficult test, how much do we care? And, of course, it's a more difficult test when it comes to China or Russia than it is with, you know, Bolivia. And do the human rights and democracy issues affect bilateral relations? I would say in the case of the one I just used, Syria, or the case of Egypt, the answer seems to be no. On some of the others, we'll see.

MR. WOLLACK: Can I use an example here? Because I think states are going to be states, and they're not going to act as democracy NGOs. When we look back at this over the last 25 years I remember going, and Elliott may remember this. We had walked into a country in Latin America and the ambassador's reaction to our presence in that country was, you're not going to bring the Philippines People Power Revolution here. What are you doing in my country?

You don't find that anymore around the world, because I think the major change in embassies in the diplomatic arena is that democracy is now part of the portfolio of every ambassador. Now, the question of where it is on that bilateral agenda, and I think groups like ours try to push these issues up as best we can, but in the end, the states will act as states, and other interests will come into play.

You know, I look at Pakistan. For nine years Musharaf was our indispensable partner. When Benazir Bhutto came to Washington, the highest administration official who would meet with her was the Pakistan desk officer at the State Department, she was virtually persona non grata until she became the best and last resort for Musharaf's survival. Then suddenly we had a democracy strategy because it was, in effect, a Musharraf strategy as a means to save him -- elections that would lead to her being elected as Prime Minister -- perhaps with Musharraf staying on as president.

There were obviously other issues that came to play. Democracy was never uttered in our relationship. Hundreds of thousands of people marched down the street for the restoration of judges. Not a word was uttered in Washington; and, we pursued stability at the expense of Democracy in Pakistan, and we achieved neither. And we are now finding that we have to repair relations with the Pakistani people today because of that. So, did I disagree then? Do I disagree with some policies now? But I believe that this is the nature of states sand their relationships.

MR. ABRAMS: Just one other comment, and then I want to go to you. Bernard said 25 years ago that there were two kinds of countries in the Middle East, broadly speaking. There were countries where there were dictatorships and the people understood that people understood that we the United States opposed the dictatorial regime -- said the United States was hugely popular -- for example, Iran. And there were dictatorships where the people understood that the United States essentially supported the dictatorship; and, therefore we were very unpopular.

I mean, Ken is exactly right. A government is not an NGO, and we have to do balancing of interests that an NGO does not have to do. The question there, of course, becomes now do you do that balancing? And it's always low on short and always very difficult. And I guess my question is whether we challenge every administration's balance. My sense now is that perhaps in a reaction against the Bush Administration, the balance has shifted too far to the negative.

MR. MCMANUS: Let's open this conversation to the audience. There are microphones out here somewhere. There's a stand back here, sir, and as always, please identify yourself and make it a question rather than a statement!

MR. STERN: Sir, I'll try. My name is Jason Stern and I work for the Project on Middle East Democracy. Recently, Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim said the American Ambassador to Egypt was effectively on the Egyptian payroll, because she did a push for Democracy rights in that country. Can you speak a little bit to that comment, how you interpret that given President Obama's increase in funding for programs like MEPI, while at the same time decreasing civil society funding for Egypt and also Jordan?

MR. MCMANUS: Well, we just talked about Egypt.

MR. WOLLACK: Well, I can't speak for Ambassador Skoby. Saad perhaps is the best person to talk about that I haven't checked their paychecks recently. I don't know what public statements she has made on these issues. I certainly don't know what private statements she had made. I think we have to see where the money is going, what groups are being supported, at what levels they're being supported; and, ultimately, we have to see what is going to take place.

Elections are coming up one side next year, local elections next year. We have to see where we stand on those elections, who are we supporting. What civil society groups we're backing to monitor those elections. So, again, I think all of these things are rather premature.

MR. ABRAMS: I would just say without getting into the question of personality, because I don't think that's right, but there are a lot of U.S. ambassadors who were fabulous on this -- both career people and political appointees -- who take it upon themselves as a great mission to support dissidents' Human Rights. The dictatorships say that they are a credit and others are just awful. They're just awful, political and career. They hate it. They kiss it off, they try to evade it. They try to evade instructions from Washington; and, to some extent, it's the luck of the draw who gets which country at which time, because you're dealing in the State Department with the bizarre and incomprehensible personnel system that, you know, teaches you how to speak Tajik and then sends you to Thailand.

MR. WOLLACK: And this is not a Bush issue or an Obama issue, or a Democratic issue or a Republican.

MR. ABRAMS: Although I would say this, it is. Just to add one point on this, the State Department does a poor job at training people for how to be an ambassador in a dictatorship and fight for freedom and human rights. I mean, there are, for example, people who have had this experience now with the State Department, and they're really not neutralized by the Foreign Service Institute, for example, in teaching new ambassadors. You know, I did this in country 'x', and she did this in country 'y', and we're going to come and we're going to give a couple of seminars on how you do this effectively, and we'll do that.

MR. WOLLACK: Yeah, I think this was part of what Secretary Rice was trying to do in her transformational diplomacy initiative, and there were a few courses at the Foreign Service Institute, but they didn't get very far.

MR. MCMANUS: Well, we have a lot of questions to get to and we'll try and be efficient.

MS. WINDSOR: Hi. Jennifer Windsor from Freedom House. I'd like you both to comment on the importance of people being in the right places where they can affect policies. And one of the things that I think that was very important in last administration is that people were empowered throughout. Those that cared about democracy and human rights felt empowered, and I think that one of the things that might be happening now is that there aren't enough political appointees in the system now that actually care about democracy and human rights, and that's their job. And, in particular I think that the National Security Council position has made the failure to sort of unify democracy and human rights has really hurt, I think, in weighing in on this interim period, which I agree with Ken is a little too early. But the fact that DRL, the Democracy of Human Rights and Labor, does not have an assistant secretary, the fact that the global undersecretary is just coming on line, if you could comment on the importance of people in addition to policy statements, that would be helpful.

MR. WOLLACK: Well, Jennifer, I think that's true. I think there are a lot of people in the previous administration, like Elliott -- and I won't mention everybody -- that were deeply committed to these issues and were willing to fight for these issues. A number of times Elliott and his colleagues fought for us in a lot of difficult situations and oftentimes won those battles. And not only within the bureaucracy, but overseas as well. But I will say that many of them expressed a great deal of frustration over the last few years of the administration as well, because they felt they were also outflanked by others within the administration when other interests seemed to predominate.

I think if there is a problem, it is not that there is a lack of people who care about democracy in the new administration. It's that there is a lack of people, period. And I think part of this is the vetting process. Part of it is the Congress. There are a number of people who are I know deeply committed that are being put on hold by one or two senators. One third of my board has been lost to the administration. It's our loss.

I think it's the administration's gain. I think all of them feel passionate and deeply committed on these issues, so I don't think that there is a lack of people. I just think it's early in the administration; and, the inability to get a few key people in place, I think, has also had an impact, but I think that will be rectified in the next couple months.

MR. MCMANUS: I have here in the center, sir? Yeah.

MR. MASON: My name is John Mason. I'm a retired diplomat.

MR. MCMANUS: Oh, hi John. I'm sorry.

MR. MASON: My name is John Mason. I'm a retired U.S. diplomat. And I would like to ask both Elliott and Ken about this subject in the Congress of the United States. For our policies in democracy and human rights to be successful, they should have some solid support in today's polarized, political atmosphere on the hill. Do you see some bipartisan interest in the agenda that you two share?

MR. ABRAMS: The short answer, yes, I think there's a lot of bipartisan support. I think it is going to be harder to marshal it only because bipartisanship is harder right now on any issue. Nevertheless, you see it from time to time, if it still exists; and, it serves as a kind of correct, in my view. I think the administration, as I've said, is weak on these issues and I think that we will see from time to time Congress wrapping knuckles and having a nasty hearing and pulling them back.

MR. WOLLACK: Yeah, you know, I think traditionally Congress has been seen by democratic activists oversees as their first address, as the place that has often recognized their cause before anybody else. I go back to what I said about Iraq. When the administration was not providing funding for Democracy assistance in Iraq, there isn't an issue more polarized on Capitol Hill than Iraq. Yet, the one issue that brought Democrats and Republicans together was the provision of Democracy assistance to Iraq. And, as I said, it was initiated by Ted Kennedy but supported by Leahy and Biden, and Lugar and Smith and McCain and McConnell.

This was a bipartisan group from left to right on this issue, and I always said to people at the State Department if this group can come together on something related to Iraq, we ought to be building on that. So I believe that there is, generally, a deep well on these issues that also provide an incentive for any administration to pursue some of these issues.

MR. MCMANUS: I fear we have time for just one more question. On the aisle here? Yeah, sir?

MR. PLATNER: Mark Platner, "Journal of Democracy." I guess it's primarily for Ken. If we accept the premise, which I'm inclined to that it's premature to reach a judgment about the Obama Administration on these issues, what would be your sense of how much more time might elapse before we'll have a clearer sense what some of the key issues might be that one might look at to get a sense of where the administration is likely to wind up?

MR. WOLLACK: I'm still trying to figure out the Bush Administration, so I don't know when that day will come. I believe that there are things already that are positive. As I said, I think budget requests represent the positive trend and it should not be overlooked. It is often overlooked when people talk about these issues. And if they sit there and crunch the numbers, if the administration was not interested in Democracy issues, why wouldn't they simply straightline budget requests. There was no need to provide increases in MEPI, increases in the Millennium Challenge.

If the administration was driven by an anti Bush agenda, there would have been no incentive to double the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Why? From $870 million to 1.4 billion; everyone was believing, arguing or asserting that MEPI would be eliminated, but instead it went from about $40 million to 80 million. If you look at country by country allocations for democracy assistance, not all the countries, but a vast majority of the countries had increases. Well, if the administration wasn't interested in democracy assistance, what incentive was there in the up process to provide increases in the governing justly and democratically?

So that's one indicator, I think; and I think it's an important indicator. I think we're going to have to look at this as we go along, just as we have in any other administration, and we're going to, I believe, point to things that demonstrate a deep and abiding commitment. There are other times when it will be low policy. There are other times it will be high policy. In my view, this is a continuum. These are not huge pendulum swings from administration to administration.

I do believe there is a legacy from the previous administration that has hurt the public debate on this issue. I have seen it in traveling around the country. Two years ago, my Republican counterpart, Lauren Kramer, and I visited world affairs councils in about 15 cities around the country. And we'd walk into a room, and they said, "You can't impose democracy!" And we spent the evening, and by the evening we've convinced everybody to our side, but it took an entire evening. So there are certain legacies.

The debate has been polluted to some degree because of Iraq, because of some of the elections. It was a time when everyone thought elections were terrible in the Middle East: Hamas, the brotherhood, Hezbollah. Now, suddenly, because of Lebanon, because the provincial council elections in Iraq, because of the elections in Iran, suddenly now elections have become popular. I always believed that the pendulum was going to swing back on these issues, because people on the ground demand it and that ultimately we respond to those demands here.

MR. ABRAMS: Just one final comment: we're talking about two different aspects of democracy promotion. One part of it is programs of NEI, IRI, the NED programs of other NGO programs like democracy promotion programs paid for out of AID or MEPI accounts and that we are going to have those or maybe even more of those is a good thing.

That's one thing, but there's another thing, and it's administration actions and words. And that is, you know, the sort of State of the Union speech once a year, the inaugural address once in four years, but it's also a million daily decisions. It's a decision each day about precisely how to calibrate a State Department press guidance about Uzbekistan. And those are literally dozens and dozens and dozens of decisions each day that reach Washington. And those decisions are made, I think, partly in reflection of people's sense of what would the president say if you could get this to him. You can't get it to him, because there are hundreds of these.

But, if you could fight this one out and you could get it onto his desk, what would he say? Because that is what leads people in the Bureaucracy high or low to have the energy to fight it out. Your sense that, you know, the worse thing that could happen is it will go the president. Then I'll really win. So the view of how high is this on his agenda is very important. These decisions are also made by in any administration, I would argue, by a secret network of people.

In any administration there's a kind of rule system. Well, there is. It's a kind of rule system, and in a Democratic administration, of course, it's liberal Democrats mostly; and, in a Republican administration, it's conservative Republicans who know each other, and so that they know who to call. It isn't always the org chart. It's behind the scenes. One of the things I worry about in the case of the soon to be assistant Secretary for Human Rights is he's had a great career of 30 years in the human rights NGO, which means he's never been in government and doesn't know about this. And I think this kind of rule system in the Bush Administration worked.

People knew who to call to get that press guidance changed, and that ambassador or DCM told something else. I don't see it yet in this administration. It is early. People are missing. I hope I'm wrong, but I suspect I'm not.

MR. WOLLACK: I think they're there. I think they're there.

MR. MCMANUS: We are already out of time, I'm afraid. I'm going to ask our friends at the Foreign Policy Initiative to reunite us a year from now when we can begin making some more definitive judgments. But, until then, please join me in thanking Elliott Abrams and Ken Wollack.


Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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