Tonight, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad kicked off the Center for the Study of American Democracy’s conference with a keynote address on the question of whether or not the United States should promote democracy abroad. Khalilzad, an international relations expert, served as the United States’ Ambassador to the United Nations, Iraq and Afghanistan under the Bush administration. He focused most of address on how questions of democracy promotion relate to our most recent conflicts in the middle east.
I agreed with Khalilzad’s initial contention that the United States has had a long bipartisan goal of supporting the expansion of democracy abroad, and that we have seen such promotion as critical for matters of national security as well as universal morality. But as he began to describe our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan in detail, the conflict between such ideals and the actual strategies used in the war on terror became clear.
Khalilzad is correct that the United States too often traded stability for transformation in the Middle East, and that these repressive societies fostered a culture of militancy that led to 9/11. But as Khalilzad says, the United States did not go into Iraq or Afghanistan under the auspices of democracy promotion. We did so for clear and realistic reasons of national security: namely, the safe heaven to Al Queda that the Taliban provided in Afghanistan and the weapon of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein supposedly had in Iraq. When we toppled the Taliban regime and pushed Al Qaeda into the border regions of Pakistan, we achieved our national security goals in Afghanistan quickly; but when we invaded Baghdad and removed Saddam Hussein from power, we soon discovered that there were no weapons of mass destruction. The confusion of American armed forces quickly turned to the slow and difficult process of nation building.
Khalilzad detailed American struggles and successes in actually implementing democracy, particularly concerning civil society, security forces and economic growth. Surely, there are specific lessons to be learned. But we’ve been in Afghanistan for over ten years, and Iraq for almost nine, yet these countries are hardly stable, western democracies that will advance our interests. Indeed, they are corrupt, divided and decidedly illiberal. One of the few specific national security achievements of these two wars, the death of Osama Bin Laden, resulted not from the kind of multilayered counterinsurgency that Khalizad advocates, but from a targeted and brutal drone program with little connection to the sort of democratic ideals we originally sought to promote.
In effect, our democracy promotion efforts were taken up almost as secondary goals to our original justifications for invasion. The war on terror’s costs have far exceeded the limited threat that Al Qaeda posed to the United States, and it actually decreased our standing within the region and on the global stage. Despite efforts to use the best practices that Khalilzad advocates, our armed forces and aid workers have limited utility as central planners. As we leave Iraq and prepare to leave Afghanistan, we know that we promoted too little democracy at too high a price.