Washington is in thrall to the false idea that democratization will make other nations more reliable, peaceful allies. Yet by essentially fetishizing democracy, the U.S. only serves to undermine its own interests.
The controversy over the re-election of Afghan President Hamid Karzai demonstrates this all too well. Karzai prevailed in the first round of presidential voting conducted last month in much the same way Mahmoud Ahmadinejad secured another term in neighboring Iran. In short, he cheated. In Iraq, meanwhile, reports suggest that the country is steadily reverting to a police state status, albeit under different management.
Should we be disappointed by the recent developments in Iraq and Afghanistan? Of course. But it's also time for Americans to drop the pretense that our missions in those two countries have—or even should have—anything to do with promoting democracy abroad.
Washington and the U.N. now seem poised to reject the election results in Afghanistan and claim that Karzai's government lacks legitimacy. This would be a critical error. The most important consideration is whether or not Karzai's government does more to aid U.S.-led efforts to fight the Taliban than an alternative government would. Despite our frustration with the corruption and weakness of Karzai's government, he is the best of a bad set of options.
But Washington has foolishly married democracy promotion to the pursuit of national-security interests, even when the two have no obvious or necessary connection. In Iraq, this has led to the empowerment of a still largely sectarian government that stands in the way of an enduring political settlement there. And now it may seriously undermine the stability of Afghanistan, if Karzai's victory is voided and a run-off is held. Aside from providing another occasion for the Taliban to ramp up attacks, the run-off could conceivably result in Karzai's defeat and deepen Pashtun alienation from the government in Kabul.
It's worth remembering that Karzai's victory was always very likely, even without fraud. Despite a decline in his popularity in recent years, Karzai has consolidated Uzbek and Hazara support through his alliances with two warlords, Dostum and Fahim, making him a candidate with the broadest political base. No other candidate, and especially not someone so closely identified with the old, predominantly Tajik Northern Alliance as former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, can command the kind of broad support across ethnic and tribal groups that Karzai, who is a Pashtun, continues to enjoy.
If U.S. strategy requires an Afghan government that will not easily succumb to ethnic and regional fragmentation, Karzai's government offers us the best chance for some measure of success. That means that Washington may simply have to accept that a functioning government in Afghanistan will not be recognizable as a Western-style democracy, and recognize that American interests in Central and South Asia need not be held captive to the establishment of such a democracy in Afghanistan.
We have already seen in the last year how excessive attachment to the forms and procedures of democracy in other countries can subvert U.S. interests. This past summer the administration allowed its policy of engagement with Iran to be held hostage to the protests of the political opposition. Our Iran policy should be dictated by the regional security interests Iran and America share, not Iran's internal political disputes. In our own hemisphere, the Obama administration has punished the poor, traditionally U.S.-aligned nation of Honduras for deposing President Manuel Zelaya. The U.S. claims to be doing this in the name of protecting democracy, even though the transitional government has vowed to hold new elections as scheduled.
Or take the Georgian government of Mikheil Saakashvili, which was once held up as a model of the "freedom agenda." The Russian-Georgian war last year was not a betrayal of Georgian democracy, it was a direct consequence of it, and of its nationalist enthusiasm. Indeed, throughout the developing world, majoritarianism unleavened by respect for minorities and the rule of law has been a curse and a cause of political instability, from Venezuela to Kenya to Thailand.
In short, even when democracy "works," it does not necessarily provide the benefits that proponents of democracy promise—which is one more reason Washington should simply remove democratization from its list of foreign policy priorities.