As his foreign policy becomes more bollixed by the week, President Obama is taking refuge by whooping up democracy. In Warsaw, Poland, earlier this month, Mr. Obama proclaimed, “Wherever people are willing to do the hard work of building democracy — from Tbilisi to Tunis, from Rangoon to Freetown — they will have a partner.” In his 70th anniversary D-Day speech, the president proclaimed that Normandy was “democracy’s beachhead” that paved the way for “70 years of democratic movements” spreading around the world.
Mr. Obama is upholding a hoary tradition of presidential uplift. When President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany in 1917, he proclaimed, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” But neither Wilson nor his successors ever said anything about making democracy safe for the world.
More recently, democracy is routinely hyped as an automatic pilot for tranquility at home and abroad. President Ronald Reagan declared that “the surest guarantee we have of peace is national freedom and democratic government.” President George W. Bush declared in 2005, “Because democracies respect their own people and their neighbors, the advance of freedom will lead to peace.”
However, the notion that democracies do not attack each other did not prevent President Bill Clinton from bombing Serbia, which had an elected government. Democracy at home also failed: The White House scoffed at obeying the War Powers Act after the House of Representatives failed to support the offensive.
Mr. Obama has repeatedly blundered by assuming that democratic processes abroad will solve pervasive political problems. The president sent 21,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan in 2009 in large part to help the government carry out a presidential election. Mr. Obama boasted to the Veterans of Foreign Wars that “our troops are helping to secure polling places.” Nonetheless, Peter Galbraith, a top United Nations official in Afghanistan, estimated that a third of votes received by Hamid Karzai were bogus. Mr. Galbraith wrote, “No amount of spin can obscure the fact that we spent upward of $200 million on an election that has been a total fiasco.” The Obama team endlessly begged Mr. Karzai to end his regime’s brazen corruption, but his cronies laughed all the way to the bank in Dubai.
Mr. Obama’s most disastrous intervention in the name of democracy occurred in Libya. In March 2011, the president told Americans that “the democratic values that we stand for would be overrun” if the United States did not bomb Libya. Mr. Obama declared that one goal of the U.S. attack was “the transition to a legitimate government that is responsive to the Libyan people.” The bombs delivered by U.S. planes and ships did not magically beget freedom, though. Instead, the country continues to be ravaged by violence, which has claimed thousands of victims (including four U.S. government officials in Benghazi in 2012).
The Obama administration often relies on a “good enough for government work” standard of democracy. In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s party failed to win the most seats in his 2010 re-election campaign. However, as The Washington Post reported Tuesday, “The Obama administration, concerned about a power vacuum in the restive country, had pushed for the compromise that resulted in Maliki’s return to office.” Mr. Maliki has long been a brutal dictator, linked to the death squads and torture that tyrannize the Sunni minority and his political opponents. Hatred of Mr. Maliki is a key reason why the ISIS terrorist group has easily captured numerous Iraqi cities in recent weeks.
Mr. Obama has done some of his worst contortions on democracy in Egypt, alternatively fawning on and freezing out the nascent popular movements that sought to end an authoritarian regime. Last month’s presidential election in Egypt set the benchmark for lunacy, including an emergency decree extending the polling for an extra day because the voter turnout was embarrassingly feeble. One of the judges on the election commission had publicly called for canceling elections in Egypt until “illiteracy vanishes, citizens’ living standards are secured, their will liberated and their culture is sophisticated.” The widely condemned electoral charade did not deter Mr. Obama from giving a congratulatory call last week to the winner, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Across the world, more people are recognizing that voting alone will not keep them safe. Salma Al-tasi, a 23-year-old woman protester in Egypt, provided more political wisdom in one sentence than most Washington pundits emit in a lifetime. When she was asked in early 2011 why she and other demonstrators refused to accept dictator Hosni Mubarak’s promise to hold elections, Ms. Al-tasi replied: “We do not trust a government that sends thugs to kill us.” This is a reasonable reaction for people living under most of the governments in the world, regardless of their democratic trappings.
Perhaps the worst thing Mr. Obama is doing to undermine democracy abroad is acting like an elective despot at home. Practically any time Congress balks at his demands, he strives to manipulate the law, or issue new regulations or executive orders to impose his preferred policies. Thanks to his pervasive secrecy, we have no idea how many of our constitutional rights have been trampled since 2009.
It is utterly unrealistic to expect American politicians to cease making false claims about democracy. This problem did not start with Mr. Obama, and it will not end with whoever is elected in 2016. Still, the carnage from such promises could be curbed if Americans recognized that democracy is no panacea for most of the world’s ills.
James Bovard is the author of “Attention Deficit Democracy” (Palgrave, 2006) and “Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty” (St. Martin’s, 1994).