Quieter Approach to Spreading Democracy Abroad
Published: February 21, 2009
WASHINGTON — Fresh from orchestrating a historic victory, President Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, headed to the remote seaside town of Baku for a lucrative speech. For Mr. Plouffe, it was a chance to pocket an easy $50,000. But for the authoritarian government of Azerbaijan, it was a chance to burnish the reputation of a harsh system headed by the son of a K.G.B. general.
Mauricio Lima/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
ONE FINGER, ONE VOTE Election Day in Iraq, 2005, two and half years after the United States-led invasion.
An outcry forced Mr. Plouffe to donate the cash to pro-democracy groups in the former Soviet Union, but to some policy experts it spotlighted a shift in American attitudes toward advancing the cause of democracy abroad. Mr. Plouffe did not intend to give succor to a despot, friends said, but evidently did not think to determine whether the supposed civic group forking over the money had ties to an anti-democratic regime.
Four years after President George W. Bush declared it the mission of America to spread democracy with the goal of “ending tyranny in our world,” his successor’s team has not picked up the mantle. Since taking office, neither Mr. Obama nor his advisers have made much mention of democracy-building as a goal. While not directly repudiating Mr. Bush’s grand, even grandiose vision, Mr. Obama appears poised to return to a more traditional American policy of dealing with the world as it is rather than as it might be.
The shift has been met with relief in Washington and much of the world, which never grew comfortable with Mr. Bush’s missionary rhetoric, seeing it as alternately cynical or naïve. But it also underlines a sharp debate in Democratic circles about the future of Mr. Bush’s vision. Idealists, for lack of a better word, agree that democracy-building should be a core American value but pursued with more...