America’s War on Terror: Democracy is No Panacea

Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, the scholarly research has burgeoned, enabling a more thorough examination of the Bush Administration’s policy choice to aggressively promote democracy as part of their overall war on terror strategy. Scholars have advanced a number of compelling findings and arguments about the Bush Administration’s policymaking process, as well as why democracy has proved so problematic in both countries.

This is Part 3 of 4 of Erik Goepner‘s paper. In case you missed them, read Part 1 and Part 2.

James Pfiffner suggests President Bush did not employ a systematic decision-making process with respect to Iraq, and that the president preferred substantive discussions with only a small cadre of his closest advisors.[1] This style could easily result in intelligence and research being overlooked, or the close-knit group unwittingly succumbing to groupthink.

Regarding the challenges of democratizing both countries, researchers point to the historic challenges of Muslim-majority states adopting democratic norms, ethnic and / or religious fractionalization, lack of liberal institutions or culture, poor rule of law, and the animus felt towards the democracy promoter (i.e., the U.S.) by many in the Muslim world.[2]

In addition, two lesser-known arguments are germane and will be addressed further. The first focuses on how the Bush Administration promoted democracy and the second looks at who was being democratized. While the idea of America promoting democracy abroad is nothing new, how it has been promoted over time has changed. Jonathan Monten outlines the two predominate ways in which America has historically sought to export democracy.[3] The first, and preferred choice until the 20th century, relied on America’s example, akin to the shining city on a hill. America’s efforts to win other nations to democratic forms of governance primarily took place within America’s borders, such that other nations could see the example and be enticed to emulate it. Monten refers to the second method as “vindicationism.” It includes setting a positive example, but adds active, external measures to promote democracy. President Bush, Monten argues, embraced a version of vindicationism-plus by also adding a coercive element. Monten goes on to say the U.S.’ hegemonic status not only made coercion possible, but in some respects almost unavoidable.[4] Had U.S. power not been such an overmatch for any would-be competitor, the Bush Administration would likely have been less bold. Policymakers believed their use of power was virtuous. As a result, they did not consider that their use of power might be coercive, unwelcome, or self-seeking.[5]

Moreover, the Bush Administration believed democratic success would beget democratic success, such that bandwagoning would result rather than other nations and actors attempting to balance against U.S. power.[6] Assumed bandwagoning also contributed to the expectation that U.S. military power would facilitate a pacific transition to democracy beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. As the President claimed, a “free Iraq can be an example of reform and progress to all the Middle East.”[7]

The second argument looks at who was being democratized. It does not appear that U.S. policymakers gave any consideration to the mental health status of the Afghan or Iraqi populations prior to pursuing a policy of democratization. Specifically, the effects of decades of severe trauma visited upon both populations were ignored—Afghanistan for 20 of the 21 years preceding the U.S. invasion, and Iraq for the preceding 17 years.

Persons who have been heavily traumatized, similar to the Afghans and Iraqis, are more likely to succumb to learned helplessness.[8] This psychological phenomenon manifests over time, as an individual increasingly perceives no connection between their own efforts and the outcomes that result. Self-efficacy gives way to hopelessness. As a result, the individual no longer puts forth effort, instead they surrender to their circumstances.[9] The behavioral and cognitive changes that frequently accompany severe trauma would appear to inhibit the successful initiation of democracy.

The decision to include democracy promotion as a key part of the war on terror did not happen immediately. Rather, it appears to have occurred in response to perceived early successes in Afghanistan. Policymakers apparently missed or ignored much of the research and intelligence available at the time that indicated the numerous challenges to successfully democratizing Afghanistan and Iraq. Additionally, the research since then tends to corroborate the earlier research.

Next week, part 4 will take a final look at democracy promotion as a key part of America’s war on terror strategy. This last examination will focus on the numbers. How effective has the U.S. been in democratizing Afghanistan, Iraq and the broader region? And, more broadly, how have the efforts to democratize affected the overall achievement of U.S. goals in the war on terror? Erik Goepner’s full paper is available here.


[1] James Pfiffner, “Decisionmaking, Intelligence, and the Iraq War,” in Intelligence and National Security Policymaking on Iraq: British and American Perspectives (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2008), 217–8.
[2] Zakaria, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy”; Bernard Lewis, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” The Atlantic 266, no. 3 (1990): 47–60; Samuel Huntington, “The Lonely Superpower,” Foreign Affairs 78, no. 2 (March 1, 1999): 35–49; Francis Fukuyama, “Why is Democracy Performing So Poorly?” Journal of Democracy 26, no. 1 (January 2015): 13.
[3] Jonathan Monten, “The Roots of the Bush Doctrine: Power, Nationalism, and Democracy Promotion in U.S. Strategy,” International Security 29, no. 4 (April 1, 2005): 112–115.
[4] Monten, “The Roots of the Bush Doctrine,” 116.
[5] Monten, “The Roots of the Bush Doctrine,” 146.
[6] Monten, “The Roots of the Bush Doctrine,” 148–9.
[7] Monten, “The Roots of the Bush Doctrine,” 150.
[8] Steven Maier, “Exposure to the Stressor Environment Prevents the Temporal Dissipation of Behavioral Depression/learned Helplessness,” Biological Psychiatry 49, no. 9 (May 1, 2001): 763; Neta Bargai, Gershon Ben-Shakhar, and Arieh Y. Shalev, “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Depression in Battered Women: The Mediating Role of Learned Helplessness,” Journal of Family Violence 22, no. 5 (June 6, 2007): 268, 272, 274.
[9] Lyn Abramson, Martin Seligman, and John Teasdale, “Learned Helplessness in Humans: Critique and Reformulation,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 87, no. 1 (1978): 50.

Image Credit: U.S. Navy

One thought on “America’s War on Terror: Democracy is No Panacea

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s