President Bush's "axis of evil," in targeting only Iraq, Iran and North Korea, was apparently an understatement. Saddam Hussein, the ayatollahs and "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il were just the tip of the iceberg. The backers of new legislation before Congress have a much bolder vision: to "achieve universal democracy" by 2025 by removing -- nonviolently -- approximately two dictatorships a year. President Bush's call, in his February State of the Union address, for support of "democratic movements in the Middle East and beyond, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," must have been just what they wanted to hear.
If enacted, the new bill -- the ADVANCE (which stands for Advance Democratic Values, Address Nondemocratic Countries, and Enhance) Democracy Act of 2005, introduced into both houses on March 3 -- would bring about a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy. To maintain a regional balance of power, ensure access to vital resources, and pursue larger national security goals such as the "war on terror," the United States has traditionally worked with dictators big and small, from the tyrants of the past (such as Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua) to current autocratic allies (such as Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan and Crown Prince Abdullah in Saudi Arabia). The ADVANCE Democracy Act, the foreign policy version of "Just Say No," on the other hand, would attempt to steer the United States away from engaging with tyrants under any circumstances.
Those who are skeptical of the bill, including both liberals and conservatives, say its goal of achieving democracy worldwide is hypocritical, because while the United States encourages some democracy movements in the Middle East, it continues its economic and military support of strong-arm leaders like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. What's more, some critics say, the bill ignores the tensions between democracy promotion and America's economic and security goals.
Specifically, the act would put democracy promotion at the top of the State Department's agenda. It would establish a new Office of Democratic Movements and Transitions, require the State Department to issue an annual democracy report, and set up an advisory board of nongovernmental VIPs to evaluate all democracy-promotion activities and spending.
Initially funded at $250 million for two years, the act would direct resources to pro-democracy movements worldwide. The bill proposes to turn U.S. embassies into "islands of freedom" and align U.S. diplomats with pro-democracy movements in nondemocratic countries -- linking performance pay and promotions of Foreign Service officers to their efforts to spread democracy. The bill would also authorize the president to block financial flows to states that resisted democratization.
This plan to upend the world's remaining dictatorships (there are more than 40, according to the nongovernmental organization Freedom House) began with former U.S. ambassador to Hungary Mark Palmer and his 2003 book, "Breaking the Real Axis of Evil." "Some people think a world without tyrants is utopian," Palmer says. "And they think it's more utopian to have a deadline." But, Palmer says, "we're down to a limited number of dictators, and it's entirely feasible to get the rest of them out. Most are pretty creaky and won't even live until 2025!"
Palmer's book didn't generate much of a stir in the press, but it did capture the attention of influential politicians like Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Tom Lantos, D-Calif., in the House and John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., in the Senate, the four cosponsors of the ADVANCE Democracy Act. The primary catalyst for the democracy legislation, however, was strategist Michael Horowitz of the neoconservative Hudson Institute. Fresh from his success in pushing passage of the North Korea Human Rights Act, Horowitz, along with the National Coalition for Religious Freedom and Human Rights (a below-the-radar group of evangelicals and others that came together to promote the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998), was ready to kick things up a notch.
Their efforts were aided by Bush's remarks in his State of the Union address. Palmer says that he almost wept with joy when he heard those words. Adds Horowitz: "There were heated efforts within the State Department to say that this speech was just rhetoric, but no, it was an extraordinary speech, and it changes everything."
Horowitz expects easy passage for the act. "Obviously Republicans can support it because it's so in sync" with the president's address, he says. And he thinks Democrats, including some who opposed the war in Iraq, will support the bill because it promotes "peaceful means of supporting democracy."
The State Department might be expected to put up some resistance to legislative meddling in its mission. "That was [its] initial reaction toward the anti-trafficking legislation that was passed in both houses. That was also the initial reaction of the international religious freedom legislation," says Lorne Craner, head of the International Republican Institute and former assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor in the Bush administration. The State Department eventually successfully adapted to the institutional changes mandated by both pieces of legislation, he notes. "And given the president's words and his actions, I think at this point [the act] will get a more sympathetic hearing from the ... leadership than the trafficking or religious freedom legislation did."
Although a bill promoting democracy with bipartisan support might seem to be noncontroversial, conservatives have traditionally expressed skepticism toward the strain of messianic unilateralism that runs through neoconservative thought. As Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote 15 years ago in "The National Interest," "It is not the American purpose to establish 'universal dominance' in the provocative formulation of Charles Krauthammer -- not even the universal dominance of democracy."
It's not only conservatives who find fault with the strategy of putting democracy above all other considerations. "The inevitable fact is that in some places it is necessary to weigh competing American interests against one another," argues Thomas Carothers, director of the Democracy and Rule of Law project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "And this bill seems to assume an 'all democracy all the time' approach to foreign policy without even seeming to acknowledge deeper tensions between a democracy goal and other economic and security goals."
It also fails to take into account pressing short-term issues such as North Korea's nuclear weapons and China's growing influence in the international arena, Carothers says. "This bill doesn't seem to acknowledge that conceiving of our relationship with China as a democracy mission is probably not going to happen and will not help integrate China into the international political and economic system in the next two to 10 years."
Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the progressive Institute for Policy Studies, sees the bill as an effort to give what are seen as negative U.S. policies, particularly in the Middle East, a more positive spin. (Bush's nomination of longtime advisor Karen Hughes as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy is clearly another part of that effort.) The bill uses "the power of the U.S. military occupation and military presence in the region since 9/11 to declare that a new historical moment has arrived," she says. "The problem is that all the things the Bush administration wanted to fight against turned out to be lies -- Iraq's nukes, potential weapons of mass destruction, links with al-Qaida. You can always say that you're fighting for democracy because it is such an elusive concept."
Bennis adds that the Bush administration's "claiming credit for the move to democratization is very insulting to the peoples of these countries -- the Palestinians, the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Lebanese. These democratization attempts have been in place for the last 25 years at least, and have failed because of the efforts of the U.S. government."
The issue of U.S. hypocrisy also troubles former ambassador Palmer, a supporter of the bill. "Young Arabs see us as inconsistent, as promoting democracy but propping up the Saudi dictators. They feel that we're not credible." He believes that the ADVANCE Democracy Act will eliminate the double standards by which the U.S. government supports democracy some of the time, in some places.
Carnegie's Carothers, however, argues, "You cannot legislate the elimination of double standards in America's approach to democracy in the world, because those double standards are based on the fact that our interests don't always go together despite all the nice rhetoric in presidential speeches."
To overcome the bill's critics, Horowitz will again rely on the support of the evangelical community, which he considers to have been "the most powerful force in human rights in the last 20 years." That force was evident when the North Korea Human Rights Act seemed to be on the verge of failure last year. "I can tell you that senior officials of the Korean and Chinese embassies told me that the bill had zero chance of passing the gantlet in the Senate," Horowitz recalls. But then his coalition went into overdrive, putting pressure on Democratic leaders such as Tom Daschle, on whom the coalition threatened to unleash 300 Korean-American pastors if he didn't help remove obstacles to the bill's passage. Daschle capitulated, then lost in a close reelection race in November anyway.
If significant legislative resistance to the ADVANCE Democracy bill emerges, expect another wave of pressure from an alliance of evangelicals and neoconservatives. Having successfully shifted the debate on North Korea from security issues to human rights concerns, it is now attempting to sell a more ambitious program: the destabilization of more than 40 dictatorial regimes around the world. Whether the result is 20 years of increasing democracy (think Poland) or 20 years of devastating decline (think Russia) will depend not only on passage of the democracy act but also on the way that events affecting America's economy and national security -- which aren't always in our control -- play out on the world stage.