Pakistan, Turkey and the Democracy Dilemma

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

July 1, 2007

In November 2003, speaking before the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), President Bush explained why he intended to make the promotion of democracy the central element in his foreign policy.

“Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East,” Bush stated, “did nothing to make us safe—because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish,” Bush explained, “it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo.”

The implication of this eloquent statement was that the United States would henceforth no longer make its geopolitical or strategic interests a higher priority than its principled support for freedom, because in the long run the lack of freedom itself undermined America’s strategic interests.

As a theory it made good sense. In practice, however, Bush’s democracy-promotion efforts have run into such trouble that the administration has essentially abandoned them in practice, even if the rhetoric remains.

That democracy promotion is not working out so well in places like Iraq, Palestine, and Iran, is obvious. As is the fact that Bush is not even trying any more in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whose regimes he now appears to see as lesser evils. But the most compelling evidence that the administration is backing away from the lofty aims of the NED speech comes from the two countries I visited late last month—Pakistan and Turkey. In both places, Bush seems to be doing just what he warned against: purchasing stability at the expense of liberty and at the risk of creating “stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export.”

I arrived in Pakistan at a critical time. The previous few weeks had seen the abrupt removal of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the killing of more than 40 protesters in Karachi, the murder of another Supreme Court official, and a general strike. President Pervez Musharraf, the general who took power in a 1999 coup, refuses to give up his role as chief of staff of the army and intends to have himself elected by a compliant parliament later this year.

In widespread discussions with diverse groups of Pakistanis, I found few supporters of the general, and many critics unafraid of speaking out. Despite all this, the Bush administration clings to Musharraf as a key ally in the ‘war on terror’ and refuses to distance itself from his authoritarian turn. So much for the notion that the lack of democracy fuels Islamism and that the ‘sense of stability’ in dictatorships is false.

I travelled from Pakistan to Turkey, where democracy is on somewhat sturdier ground than in Pakistan, but where the trends are also worrisome. In late April, the Turkish military blatantly intervened in the country’s democratic process by warning that the nomination of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül to the country’s presidency was a threat to the secular state. Instead of defending Gül, whose Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party has an overwhelming majority in parliament, the Bush administration simply announced that it didn’t “take sides,” leaving the impression that Washington had no objection to military interference in civilian rule. Eventually Secretary of State Rice managed to note that the United States supported Turkey’s “democratic process,” but Washington has remained reluctant to offend Turkey’s powerful military establishment. The notion of letting the ballot box decide has taken a back seat.

The dilemmas posed by political developments in Pakistan and Turkey are genuine. Facile support for ‘democracy’ in all cases would be just as damaging to American interest as is a bias toward stability and geopolitical cooperation at any cost. That the Bush administration now understands this complexity is a good thing: it will help US policy move beyond the naïve and ideological belief that elections could solve all our problems in the greater Middle East. But it is odd—and unfortunate—that the US is unwilling to support democracy in two places where it might actually have a chance to work.

If the Bush administration is not prepared to back its democracy rhetoric in Pakistan and Turkey—with their educated middle classes, growing economies, and relatively developed and open civil societies—then the Bush doctrine really is dead.