The Bienart Approach: Spreading Democracy By Neglect

BY Glen Tschirgi
10 years, 10 months ago

In a Daily Beast article yesterday, Peter Beinhart takes a measure of relief in the fact the United States seemingly has nothing to do with the apparent uprising in Tunisia that has (for the time being) tossed out the autocrat, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

What a great country we have. Where else would you find opinion leaders applauding evidence of their own country’s irrelevance to international affairs?

The critical thing to understand about the movements stirring against tyranny in Tunisia, and throughout the Arab world, is this: They aren’t about us. And that might be a good thing.

Beinhart’s point, in essence, seems to follow along these lines:  Tunisians rose up against the oppressor-thugocracy without American help, therefore American support for oppressed peoples– particularly in the Middle East– is not only unnecessary but actually counterproductive.   Furthermore, he seems to argue, the Tunisian experience validates the view he terms “optimist” that freedom/democracy is an irresistible force that will, eventually, prevail.   (This he contrasts with the straw-man “militarist” view that democracy can only spread along with American power and influence).

To be fair, Beinhart does concede eventually that it is a “good thing for the U.S. government to want democracy in the Middle East.”  This is a nice concession that, afterall, we should not feel guilty about wanting democratic governments in the Middle East. It’s just that we shouldn’t want to do anything about it.

This allergy to the use of American power in the world is, however, disturbing on two levels.

First, it is incredibly naive.  We can all agree that the Tunisians have shown incredible bravery while, at the same time, acknowledging that the prospects for a democratic government taking hold there are slim to none without some type of external assistance.  The chances, moreover, that the autocratic governments in the Middle East will somehow fall to a rising tide of purely indigenous democracy without external aid is equally fanciful.

Second, and perhaps most disturbing, Beinhart’s approach is incredibly wrong.  Immoral.  How can we, as Americans, stand idly by while unarmed, peaceful protesters are clubbed, raped or gunned down by the security forces of pariah regimes?

It is simply not in our national character to refuse aid to any people that is willing to put their lives on the line to gain their freedom from oppression.

Does this require that the U.S. send in the tanks every time there is a political protest put down by government violence?  No.   Rather, there should be a sliding scale of involvement that begins, at the very least, with persistent and public expressions of condemnation toward the regime, followed by economic and/or diplomatic sanctions, followed (where appropriate) by tangible aid to the democratic movement (covert if necessary) and, at the extreme end of the scale, open, military assistance.    This approach leaves plenty of time and opportunity for public debate over the merits and extent of support.  But there can be no argument, such as the one Beinhart hints at, that the U.S. do nothing.

We have already seen the consequences of Beinhart’s approach.  In 1991, tens of thousands of Iraqi shia in Basra were killed by Saddam Hussein’s thugs when they revolted in 1991.   The U.S. did nothing and paid the price 12 years later when radical Islam had taken root in the region, making pacification infinitely more costly. The democracy movement in Iran is another example of ordinary citizens giving up their lives for a chance at freedom.  Obama, clearly favoring the Beinhart approach, has left them helpless against determined torture and murder by the regime.   Sudan and the Congo stand out as well.  Oppressed people of the world have rightly looked to the U.S. and we did nothing, absolutely nothing to help.  These are blots on our national honor.

In the end, Peter Beinhart may be right on one point:  democracy and freedom may (somehow) break out in the Middle East without meaningful U.S. support.  Anything is possible.

The real question, however, is this: why should we ever want that kind of world?


  1. On January 20, 2011 at 5:02 pm, Gary said:

    We, as a nation, support democracy. We have fought, sacrificed and died for freedom. A free people with a democratically elected government with the right to have forums such as this one is what we stand for. But what if freedom and democracy have a different meaning to the people? What if they freely elect Hamas, or another organization such as that?
    Do we support the government the people have elected?

  2. On January 20, 2011 at 10:09 pm, Jim Harris said:

    An issue with the last comment is that it assumes that DEMOCRACY and FREEDOM (i.e., respect for basic rights, etc.) are the same. You can have one without the other. They usually go together because DEMOCRACY is JUST ONE OF the guarantors of freedom. But, it is possible, as a Mel Gibson character put it, to be threatened by 3,000 tyrants one mile away. Democracy may be used to create a more brutal dictatorship than a single dictator would be. So just being democratically elected should not automatically let you in the club of “free nations,” — or get you the automatic support of the U.S. or other “free nations.”

  3. On January 20, 2011 at 10:18 pm, TS Alfabet said:

    “Freedom” and “democracy” almost certainly WILL have different meanings to different people in different nations and at different times and epochs.

    And the U.S., like any, other nation on earth, reserves the right to act in its best interest vis a vis other democracies as well as authoritarian states. We certainly have our differences with the EU democracies and those in Latin America. And there are borderline states such as Mexico where “freedom” seems increasingly under siege. It is widely noted, however, that it is exceedingly rare for democracies to come to open war against each other, so, on the whole, it is in everyone’s interest to see more democratic states rather than fewer.

    If we sit on the sidelines, however, as Beinhart suggests, then one thing is almost certain: we will have little if any ability to influence the type of democracy that springs up. We pass on those chances at grave risk.

    You mention, Gary, the Gaza “elections.” That is a good example of the U.S. staying on the sidelines and allowing the electoral process to be hijacked by an openly terrorist organization, Hamas, by threats and intimidation. But even if we concede, for the sake of argument, that the Gaza elections were free and fair and honest, what of it? There is no denying that the people of Gaza are now hostages to the Hamas thugs and terrorists. No sooner were the election results announced then Hamaz embarked on a deliberate war against rival political groups (such as Fatah), throwing opponents off the tops of tall buildings, no doubt as a gesture of good will. No elections have been held since and no elections will ever be held so long as Hamas rules by the gun. That, sir, is no democracy and the U.S. should treat the Hamas government as a rogue entity— like the virus that it is.

    The real difficulty is that we fail to realize just how unique it is in human history for a people to rise up and throw off oppression AND institute a government that does not, in turn, become as much of an oppressor as that which was overthrown. Americans owe a debt of thanks to France for the assistance rendered in our war of independence. We can repay some of that debt by rendering assistance to struggling people elsewhere in the world, to the extent that they want and merit it.

  4. On January 20, 2011 at 10:38 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    Glen has given us a great commentary right out of the gate.

    As I have said before, everyone who doubts that we have “meddled” in the affairs of others in order to effect our own security should read (or re-read?) the first chapter of Robert Kaplan’s “Imperial Grunts,” entitled Injun Country. We have been pressing our borders since the days of the Indian wars, and when the Continental Congress voted to form a Marine Corps, it was after the model of the British Marines, and even before the declaration of independence. They knew exactly what they were doing.

    I’m a proponent of Glen’s views here, especially (or perhaps exclusively) when it pertains to our own security. I have said before that I don’t think that it’s worth U.S. lives to secure woman’s rights in Afghanistan. But if it pertains to U.S. security – and it does – it pays to ensure that the Taliban, Haqqani group, the TTP, etc., do not provide safe haven for globalists or become more globally oriented than they are (and the Haqqani group and most of the TTP may as well be synonymous now with AQ).

    And note what Glen says. Don’t roll out the tanks. First of all, verbally support efforts at freedom. What did the Obama administration do when the Iranian students were fighting the thugs on the streets of Tehran? They called for calm. They looked to us for support, we let them down.

    I have gone further and called for covert warfare in order to effect regime change. Not every war has to be fought with tanks, but however expensive it is to wage it, it usually turns out to be more expensive to clean up the mess if we don’t. Witness Pakistan, it’s failing, and the lack of security of nuclear weapons. This is a disaster tale that is yet to be told – but soon to be realized.

  5. On January 22, 2011 at 1:39 pm, Sid said:

    That is an excellent takedown of Beinhart’s argument, and I hope we will get to read more posts from you.

    In my opinion however, you do miss one point. I agree that inaction, military intervention, and non-military support for democratic opposition are all options. But I think you have left out a fourth, the use of “soft power.” Sudan today is an excellent example. The southern part of the country just finished voting in an apparently free and fair referendum for its independence (it is surely a landslide in favor of independence). The entire process leading up to that, and beyond, owes a whole lot to the US. The Bush administration started pushing peace there in 2002, and got the “Comprehensive Peace Agreement” that led to this referendum. The Obama administration has dangled some really enticing carrots in front of Khartoum – yes, the dictatorial regime – to get them to allow the referendum to go through, and to respect its result (as it seems they will). Today Juba (capital of the soon-to-be new state) is crawling with Americans, both high profile types like Kerry & Clooney & Carter, and unknown on-the-ground supporting workers. We never told either side what to do, but rather simply supported them in any dialog they cared to hold, and insisted that whatever outcome be peaceful. It’s been a long, patient effort, and it could yet all fall apart (I think South Sudan & even Darfur will be ok, but wonder if there won’t be a move toward ‘regime change’ in Khartoum itself – they just arrested the best-known opposition leader, Al-Turabi, this week).

    My point is that Sudan gives a nice example of how the US can use its influence to bring the parties to the table (not the battlefield), and keep pressing things forward – there’s a lot of value in simply outlining options – but then leave it to the locals to decide where to take it. I think your otherwise excellent post missed the potential “4th way” of this sort of soft power.

    (Herschel, to your point about Iran, I think we had no choice but to stay silent. Any overt move toward supporting the anti-regime demonstrators would surely have strengthened the regime by allowing it to shout about interference from The Great Satan.)

  6. On January 23, 2011 at 6:57 pm, TS Alfabet said:


    A good friend of mine working with EU and NGO’s in Europe on Sudan confirms your points about Sudan. It certainly seems to be an example of “soft diplomacy” as you call it.

    I would not consider “soft diplomacy” as a “fourth way” as you do. I think the action taken with regard to Sudan can easily fit into the author’s “sliding scale” of responses.

    And the particular country should also be taken into account. Sudan never posed anything like a threat to the U.S. It could be argued that there is much more leeway in dealing with a Sudan than there is with an terror-exporting, nuclear aspiring Iran.

    And, respectfully, I have to disagree with your view of Iran. It is absolutely wrong that the U.S. had to stay silent with regard to Iran’s Green Movement. The regime in Iran is very isolated and clinging to power through sheer brutality. Ordinary Iranians are not listening to anything the Regime has to say so the Regime could have squawked all they wanted about the Great Satan. The people know the Regime is full of crap. We absolutely let the Green Movement down at a time when the right kind of support could have resulted in the downfall of a very evil and extremely threatening dictatorship. Obumble betrayed the Green Movement in much the same way that G. H. Bush betrayed the shia in Iraq. The Iranian people, when they get their freedom, will not soon forget that betrayal. A black mark, indeed, on America.

  7. On January 24, 2011 at 4:06 pm, bartel pritchard said:

    Beinart (no ‘h’) opens his second paragraph by saying “President Obama should do whatever he can to support Tunisia’s ‘Jasmine Revolution’ …”

  8. On January 24, 2011 at 4:09 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    Obama won’t do that any more than he supported the Green Movement in Iran.

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You are currently reading "The Bienart Approach: Spreading Democracy By Neglect", entry #6020 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Iran,Iraq,Policy,Politics,Uncategorized and was published January 20th, 2011 by Glen Tschirgi.

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