Two months ago, we marked the one-year anniversary of Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine. Now we have the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the juxtaposition of those landmark dates invites comparisons between the two wars. The differences between them so greatly outweigh the similarities that it’s hardly worth detailing them. But the great benefit of hindsight reveals one aspect of Iraq that can be instructive for our approach to Ukraine: democracy promotion.
Coming after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Bush administration’s case that Saddam Hussein’s past pursuit of weapons of mass destruction posed an intolerable threat was persuasive. After all, if a band of al-Qaeda members armed with box cutters could pull off 9/11, what might the authoritarian ruler of a nation with significant resources be able to do? President Bush prepared for the war by the book: presenting the case for Saddam’s weapons program to the United Nations and going back to Congress for approval of a second AUMF (Authorization for the Use of Military Force) specific to Iraq. The latter received broad bipartisan support. But the case presented to the American people was to topple Saddam, get the WMD out, declare victory, and come home.
When the WMD did not materialize, President Bush switched to a different rationale: to prevent another 9/11 by spreading democracy. This meant democracy had to be established in Iraq for the war to be seen as a success, which put the cart before the horse and necessitated a campaign of what has pejoratively become known as “nation-building.” The concept initially sounded inspiring. The soaring rhetoric of Bush’s second inaugural was steeped in the George H. W. Bush worldview that victory in the Cold War represented an evolutionary and inevitable trend toward liberal democracy. Certainly it’s hard to argue against freedom even if it’s imposed by force; those promoting freedom automatically assume a moral high ground.
But a problem emerged. Spreading democracy presumes that those practicing democracy as politicians are acting in good faith and that the populace wants it. Otherwise, democracy promotion is an abstraction, and it’s hard to fight a war about an abstraction when those presumptive conditions are absent.
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Another cautionary note was sounded in the 2006 legislative elections in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The Iranian-sponsored terrorist group Hamas won, demonstrating that a terrorist group can be perfectly capable of exploiting the very electoral process that is supposed to guard against it.
Incorrect assumptions about democracy promotion also informed the Obama administration’s approach to the Arab Spring, notably in Egypt, and the toppling of Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi. Again, the results were dismal. In Libya, for example, the impulse to depose a strongman and spread freedom prevailed even though Qaddafi had relinquished his WMD programs and cooperated with the United States in counterterrorism initiatives. The assumption was that democracy would naturally flourish in Libya if given half a chance—i.e., if Qaddafi was removed. The smooth path to democracy envisioned by those supporting the policy, however, proved just as chimerical as it had in Iraq.
Cautioning against democracy promotion is certainly a somber lesson to present on the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. But with historical hindsight, seeing such lessons clearly and using them to guide future policies may be the most productive outcome of the war. The United States can and should stand with those who fight for their freedom, as history tells us they have tremendous potential to become good partners and allies. But while we can support them, we cannot fight the fight for them, or want freedom more than they do.
The lesson then to be learned here is that democracy promotion in and of itself does not necessarily advance the strategic interests of the United States. Democracy is not inherently moral; it’s a form of government, albeit one that Americans strongly favor. Which raises strong concerns about some of the rhetoric that the Biden administration is using to justify escalating U.S. engagement in Ukraine.
President Biden is communicating—most recently in last month’s speech in Warsaw—that the United States must be the world’s leading donor to the Ukrainian cause because this is a battle between democracy and autocracy. But the cause for defending democracy in Ukraine is a fundamentally Ukrainian cause. America can want a partner such as Ukraine to be democratic and can foster, encourage, and support the establishment of democratic institutions to this end, but we cannot make this the driver of an effective U.S. national-security policy. If Ukraine becomes the front line in a global struggle for freedom that we are obligated to join, are there any limits to this mission? Under that logic, American military engagement could be justified against any country whose system of government Washington deems insufficiently democratic, regardless of whether it supports the United States—while failure to engage in other such actions could make U.S. military support for Ukraine look selective and hypocritical.
So while America may choose to support Ukraine in this fight, the Biden administration needs to communicate straightforwardly to the American people and their elected representatives in Congress why Ukraine merits such an investment. Such an argument can be made, but the cause of democracy promotion should not be the foundation of it.
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Ukraine is emerging as the front line in the global struggle for energy security, and the U.S. has an interest in seeing it stabilized. The United States has a generational investment in NATO security, which can be justified on the grounds that, if America is going to robustly counter the People’s Republic of China, we will need strong and aligned European partners.
To deter a potentially broader war by effectively supporting a fight the Ukrainians are willing to fight on their own behalf, America has an interest in decisively ending Vladimir Putin’s military aggression—aggression that might target a NATO member next. But we also need to frankly communicate to NATO that the U.S. cannot be more responsible for European security than the Europeans are, especially if America is also expected to confront China.
Observing that the history of the past 20 years doesn’t support using democracy promotion to justify military action is not to say that America cannot be an outspoken proponent for those standing for their freedom, from Kyiv to Tehran and beyond. For instance, we marked another anniversary this month: the 40th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” address delivered on March 8, 1983.
In that speech, President Reagan spoke powerfully about the unique moral nature of U.S. democracy in contrast with the utter moral degeneration of Soviet totalitarian communism. He talked about supporting aspirations for freedom. But his key focus was on protecting and preserving the American experiment—the greatest contribution to freedom around the globe—against an existential threat. It’s a lesson we might productively revisit in the context of the current war in Ukraine.
This piece originally appeared in the National Review