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Has the United States launched wars to promote democracy?
No, not really
In an address laying out the Biden administration’s top foreign policy priorities, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a noteworthy claim:
But we will not promote democracy through costly military interventions or by attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes by force. We have tried these tactics in the past. However well intentioned, they haven’t worked. They’ve given democracy promotion a bad name, and they’ve lost the confidence of the American people. We will do things differently.
The fact that this assertion will go largely unchallenged testifies to the way it and similar sentiments have become conventional wisdom in the country’s foreign policy debate. It’s not hard to understand why that’s the case – President George W. Bush did frequently justify the war in Iraq on the grounds that it would promote democracy in a Middle East ruled largely by autocrats. As Bush put it in his speech announcing the 2007 surge of American troops to the conflict, democracy in Iraq would produce “a country that fights terrorists instead of harboring them – and it will help bring a future of peace and security for our children and our grandchildren.”
But it’d be a mistake to say that the United States went to war in Iraq mainly to promote democracy in the Middle East. Indeed, the case the Bush administration made in 2002 and 2003 dwelled almost entirely on the threat posed by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction. Bush himself stated that the United States “cannot wait for the final proof – the smoking gun – that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” His 2003 state of the union address likewise focused on the perceived Iraqi threat, warning, “With nuclear arms or a full arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, Saddam Hussein could resume his ambitions of conquest in the Middle East and create deadly havoc in that region.” What’s more, Bush warned, Saddam’s regime “aids and protects terrorists, including members of Al Qaeda” and could hand over some of his weapons to such groups.
Even when democracy promotion later became a central justification for the war in Iraq, the Bush administration still couched American military involvement there in predominantly security terms. Bush claimed “spreading liberty and democracy is at the heart of our strategy to defeat the terrorists.” In announcing the surge, moreover, Bush made clear that the primary impetus for his decision came from security concerns: “the most realistic way to protect the American people is to provide a hopeful alternative to the hateful ideology of the enemy, by advancing liberty across a troubled region.”
To put it bluntly, America did not invade Iraq in 2003 mainly to promote democracy. No doubt, the Bush administration highlighted Saddam Hussein’s brutality and contended – correctly – that the Iraqi people deserved freedom. But its case for war rested primarily on security grounds, and it justified continued American military involvement in Iraq on a largely similar basis. That doesn’t mean that other voices from across the ideological spectrum didn’t back the invasion as a means to spread democracy, just that the Bush administration never really offered democracy promotion as its primary rationale for war.
What about other wars and military interventions across American history? Didn’t President Woodrow Wilson take America into the First World War to make the world safe for democracy? Yes, but not to promote democracy in the way we think about it today – instead, he aimed to make the world safe enough for America to practice democracy at home, and for him that meant defeating Imperial Germany on the battlefield.
Other American wars and military interventions often involved democracy promotion as a subsidiary goal, but in the main they were driven by a mix of security concerns, geopolitical interests, and humanitarian impulses rather than a compulsion to spread democracy around the world. Wars in Korea and Vietnam were fought to prevent the expansion of communism, though the United States did press South Vietnam to hold elections in 1967 as a way to shore up public support for the war back home. American military interventions in the Balkans over the course of the 1990s were driven by a combination of geopolitical and humanitarian motives, while the Obama administration’s initial 2011 decision to act against the Qaddafi regime in Libya was prompted by rational fears of an imminent massacre.
In most cases of military intervention over the past century, the United States has indeed sought to promote democracy – but usually after the fact and in the course of rebuilding a given country when conflict ends. America didn’t go to war in 1941 to transform Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan into the liberal democracies we know today, for instance, but did so after defeating them on the battlefield. The fact that the United States usually aims to leave behind democracies when and where it goes to war doesn’t mean that it’s typically aimed to spread democracy through the use of military force.
Again, it’s understandable why many Americans continue to associate democracy promotion with the disastrous war in Iraq. The Bush administration did its best to establish that link in the public consciousness, after all, and it’s become a central talking point for foreign policy critics on the progressive left and libertarian right. But that doesn’t mean that the United States went to war in Iraq to promote democracy, or that we fought there for the better part of decade for that reason. Nor does it follow that other U.S. military interventions – whether they overthrew dictators or not – were motivated first and foremost by a desire to promote democracy.
America’s wars and military interventions over the past century have instead been driven by an amalgam of security, geopolitical, and sometimes humanitarian considerations – not an overwhelming impulse to promote democracy. Some have succeeded and others have failed, often dramatically and at great cost. But they haven’t been undertaken with the primary purpose of democracy promotion.
Why does this matter? For one, it’s important to get our facts straight when it comes to important decisions involving the use of military force. Holding democracy promotion responsible for the war in Iraq just doesn’t hold water, and it only reinforces the negative association between a worthwhile concept and a calamitous war. If we’re going to have a productive discussion about where, when, and how the United States should or shouldn’t use force, it’s best to base it on the actual reasons America goes to war – not an inaccurate narrative put forward by ideological echo chambers.
It also stops us from thinking about how the United States can best protect and promote democracy, both at home and abroad. Democracy promotion obviously begins at home, as Secretary Blinken rightly acknowledged in his remarks. But a constructive debate about the role of democracy promotion in our foreign policy ought to start with an acknowledgment that it doesn’t require the use of military force. Diplomatic pressure, political party building programs, and support for civil society groups represent just some of the major tools the United States has historically used to try and promote democracy overseas. Some have worked and others haven’t – but it’s hard to determine which have and which haven’t when our discussions remain based on the false impression that our primary method of democracy promotion has been war and regime change.
Ultimately, though, the persistence of this contention represents another sign that many progressives still want to fight the last war – literally. But it’s not 2005, and the notion that the invasion of Iraq was a terrible idea no longer passes for insight or wisdom. Erroneously blaming that disaster on democracy promotion doesn’t just leave us with a mistaken idea of why we went to war eighteen years ago. It draws our attention away from the far more urgent and tractable questions surrounding how America should protect democracy at home and abroad today.