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The Question of US 'Democracy Promotion' in the Newspaper of Record

Sometimes the thing we call "media bias" isn't about what a given piece of journalism explicitly says about the world;  it's more about the assumptions that must be taken for granted. Question those assumptions and the whole thing starts to fall apart. 

Tuesday's New York Times (2/25/14) had a piece about whether or not the Obama administration is as committed to a policy of "democracy promotion" as the Bush administration had been. 

To anyone familiar with US history of inhibiting and undermining democracies, or its long-standing alliances with resolutely antidemocratic countries, the whole concept must seem rather absurd. But in order for this story to make any sense, you must on some level accept the premise that support for democracy in other countries is an important US value.

"Mr. Obama has not made global aspirations of democracy the animating force of his presidency," the Times' Peter Baker writes. The administration has discussed a strategy of keeping some distance from pro-democracy movements, which doesn't sit well with some:

To some critics, though, that justifies a policy of passivity that undercuts core American values.

"The administration's Ukraine policy is emblematic of a broader problem with today's foreign policy–absence of a strategic vision, disinterest in democracy promotion and an unwillingness to lead," said Paula J. Dobriansky, an undersecretary of State for Mr. Bush.

The Times also elicits comments from Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis, "who advised the Bush White House as speechwriters worked on the former president's January 2005 inaugural address promising to combat tyranny abroad."

Of the comparison between Obama and his predecessor, Obama supporters "say he has increased spending on projects that encourage democratic reform in places like Africa and Asia while directing money to support changes in the Arab world." According to Baker:

For Mr. Bush, the focus on spreading democracy preceded his decision to invade Iraq, but it was inextricably linked to the war after the failure to find the unconventional weapons that had been the primary public justification. The goal of establishing a democratic beachhead in the Middle East began driving the occupation, but it became tarnished among many overseas because of its association with the war.

To Baker, this continued as Bush was "setting a 'freedom agenda' for his second term," the evidence for which was evidently a speech where Bush  "declared it his policy to support democracy 'in every nation' with 'the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.'"

It take an enormous amount of nerve to cast Bush's illegal invasion of Iraq as the starting point for a policy of democracy promotion, especially considering that US policy during the post-invasion occupation was fervently opposed to Iraqi elections (Extra!, 6/05).

It might have made more sense to consider  just a few of the available counter-examples. But again, doing this would start to make the basic point Times article seem absurd.

The reaction to the 2002 coup against Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez might be seen as an expression of the White House's actual views about democracy–which was to cheer on the coup plotters. (The Times, as it happened, had the same impulse–Extra!, 6/02.) The Obama administration was faced with a similar situation in 2009 when a coup removed left-wing Honduran President Manuel Zelaya; the administration's response was, at best, weak.

These are actual tests of a superpower's faith in democracy, and the record would not suggest that supporting or promoting democracy was particularly important in either case. 

As the Bush White House ramped up its rhetoric about democracy promotion, Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment (National Interest, 3-4/07) wrote that Bush's rhetoric had little to do with its actual Mideast policy. "Even at its peak in 2004–05," Carothers said, "this push for change among America's autocratic friends in the region was nonetheless relatively weak." And election outcomes that ran counter to US elite interests seemed to signal a retreat from even the pro-democracy rhetoric. Carothers concluded that "the notion that the universal pursuit of freedom constitutes George Bush's global compass is an enormous illusion."

Carothers is often cited by author and critic Noam Chomsky, often to make the point that even establishment historians admit that official rhetoric should not be confused with actual policy. But the critique of US policy should go much deeper;  Chomsky   (5/4/05) pointed out that Bush's nomination of John Negroponte as director of national intelligence sent a clear signal about democracy promotion:

The arc of Negroponte's career ranges from Honduras, where as Reagan's ambassador he oversaw the Contra terrorist forces' war against Nicaragua, to Iraq, where as Bush's ambassador he briefly presided over another exercise in alleged democracy development–experience that can inform his new duties to help combat terror and promote liberty. Orwell would not have known whether to laugh or to weep.

Chomsky closed that column with this observation:

For Washington, a consistent element is that democracy and the rule of law are acceptable if and only if they serve official strategic and economic objectives. But American public attitudes on Iraq and Israel/Palestine run counter to government policy, according to polls. Therefore the question presents itself whether a genuine democracy promotion might best begin within the United States.

Does the United States need to do some democracy promotion here in the United States? Now that might be a more interesting piece to read in the Newspaper of Record.

© 2021 Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
Peter Hart

Peter Hart

Peter Hart is the senior field communications officer for Food & Water Watch. Previously at the media watchdog group FAIR, Hart is also the author of "The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly" (2003).

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