What a former diplomat thinks about Trump, Ukraine, and America's role in promoting democracy abroad

An interview with Mietek Boduszynski

Mietek Boduszynski.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Courtesy Mietek Boduszynski, Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Change was in the air, and it felt electric.

Former diplomat Mietek Boduszynski was posted to Libya in 2010, a year before an armed revolt would overthrow the regime of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. In the early days of the Arab Spring, there was the remarkable sight of people in Cairo's Tahrir Square having open political discussions, and Libyans excitedly discussed their future under a new leader.

"I saw young Arabs who wanted the same thing people want everywhere: to be able to voice their opinion on Twitter and Facebook, choose their leaders, and have them held accountable if corrupt," Boduszynski told The Week. "These are universal aspirations."

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The Arab Spring uprisings began a century after Woodrow Wilson began a push to promote democracy abroad, believing this would foster world peace and stability. Over the last 100 years, the United States has supported democratization efforts in all corners of the globe, but the demand for free elections and judicial reform has cooled in recent years.

In his new book, U.S. Democracy Promotion in the Arab World: Beyond Interests vs. Ideals, Boduszynski, a politics and international relations professor at Pomona College, writes about the United States' stuttering advocacy for democracy. Like many past and present members of the foreign service, he is troubled by how the current administration is wielding power.

Boduszynski didn't set out to become a diplomat. He came to the U.S. as a political refugee from Poland when he was five years old, and his family ultimately benefited from President Ronald Reagan's general amnesty. While finishing his doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, Boduszynski was torn between staying in academia or exploring the world with the State Department. He chose adventure, and went off to Albania for his first posting. His career would later take him to hotspots like Kosovo and Iraq.

The United States has always been selective about when and where it will promote democracy, Boduszynski says, with the consequences still felt today. In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. chose not to exact revenge on its enemies, but rather promote democratic institutions. Once the Cold War heated up, the U.S. became interested in one thing: countering Soviet influence. This maniacal focus resulted in the overthrow of democratically-elected regimes, such as the ones in Iran and Guatemala.

The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 gave the United States a chance to stop focusing on combating communism and start promoting democracy in Eastern Europe.

Take Ukraine. "Successive presidential administrations, Republican and Democrat, have made strengthening Ukrainian democratic institutions a goal of U.S. policy," Boduszynski said. "Pro-Western Ukrainian governments have been receptive to U.S. efforts, because they would like their country to be a member of the Western democratic community of nations."

That's one reason why he found President Trump's decision to freeze $400 million in security aid to Ukraine, which was the major impetus for the House of Representatives' impeachment vote, so alarming. Boduszynski said the kind of assistance Trump "chose to politicize was critical for [democracy promotion], and also critical to defend Ukraine against Russian aggression — which is also in the U.S. interest. In other words, President Trump has distorted and undermined U.S. democracy promotion policy toward a country with fragile institutions that badly needs and welcomes American assistance, and in the process hurt U.S. national interests."

For every country like Ukraine that's willing to listen, there's another with an authoritarian leader posing a challenge. Presidents of both parties have cozied up to authoritarian regimes when it suits the United States' interests, particularly in the Middle East.

Indeed, for many decades, even as democracy promotion efforts expanded across the globe, the Arab world was the exception. Boduszynski said that in Washington, the general attitude was "these are societies that are not made for democracy. Having a strong person rule is the only way to prevent chaos and terrorism."

Then came the Arab Spring.

Boduszynski said the protests caught many off guard "because they were talking to regimes, not the people, and had been missing things." He worked for U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, who was killed in a 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. Boduszynski's new book is dedicated to Stevens, whom he called "a wonderful representative of the United States. He was a believer that Arabs and people around the world deserve better than having to choose between chaos and authoritarians."

Boduszynski was supposed to be in Benghazi when the attack occurred; due to last minute logistical issues, he remained in Tripoli. In the wake of the disaster, 10 investigations were launched, including six by GOP-controlled congressional committees, with Republicans accusing members of the Obama administration, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of participating in a coverup.

"It was really sad for me to see how the attack in Benghazi became a political witch hunt in our politics," Boduszynski said. "[Stevens] never would have wanted our domestic policy held hostage because he was doing his job, and there were certain risks that went into it, like a police officer or firefighter. The biggest craziness in Washington was when Republicans decided to make this a way to go after Hillary Clinton, instead of what it was: tragic terrorism."

In the Trump administration, democracy promotion is seemingly on the back burner. On the left and the right, there are growing calls for isolationism, with the argument being that the United States cannot be the world's policeman. "We have a lot of domestic problems and people are tired of these endless commitments," Boduszynski said.

He's found that many people overseas think U.S. foreign policy involves "a small group of people getting together in a situation room, making decisions about the world." In fact, "it's very messy ... and reflects the democratic system." This misconception presents an opportunity.

"One way we should conduct our foreign policy is to focus on things that attract people to the U.S., but also recognize the difficult road of our own democracy," Boduszynski said. "The civil rights movement was just a few decades ago. It's important to tell our story overseas, about how we still have huge problems, but we became more inclusive and a better democracy over time."

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Catherine Garcia

Catherine Garcia is night editor for TheWeek.com. Her writing and reporting has appeared in Entertainment Weekly and EW.com, The New York Times, The Book of Jezebel, and other publications. A Southern California native, Catherine is a graduate of the University of Redlands and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.