How Presidents Use the Term "Democracy" as a Marketing Tool





Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York, Albany. His latest book is Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present (Stanford University Press).

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George W. Bush’s recent claim that the U.S. war in Iraq is part of an attempt to spread “democracy” to the Middle East should not surprise anyone familiar with the use of that word to camouflage sordid realities.

When, in the aftermath of World War II, Stalin had the Soviet Union gobble up the nations of Eastern Europe, he christened them People’s Democracies – although they were neither democratic nor meant to be. This debasement of “democracy” and other noble terms such as “freedom” and “peace” to crude propaganda was undoubtedly what George Orwell had in mind when he wrote his powerful novel, 1984, which portrayed a nightmarish society in which words were turned inside out to justify the policies of cynical and unscrupulous rulers.

Unfortunately, however, “democracy” has also been abused throughout American history. In the nineteenth century, land-hungry politicians, slaveholders, and businessmen defended the U.S. conquest of new territory by claiming that it would extend the area of democracy and freedom. In the twentieth century, President Woodrow Wilson grandly proclaimed that U.S. participation in World War I would “make the world safe for democracy.” A few decades later, Washington officials again sanctified U.S. policy by invoking democracy, for they declared repeatedly that the U.S. role in the Cold War was designed to defend the “Free World.” Indeed, it would be hard to find a U.S. war or expansionist enterprise that was not accompanied by enthusiastic rhetoric about supporting democracy.

In fairness, it should be noted that the U.S. government has economically and militarily supported many democratic nations. After World War II, it forged alliances with a good number of them.

But it has also provided military and economic assistance to numerous nations ruled by bloody dictatorships, including Franco’s Spain, Chiang Kai-Shek’s China, the Shah’s Iran, Somoza’s Nicaragua, Batista’s Cuba, Sukarno’s Indonesia, the Saud family’s Saudi Arabia, Diem’s South Vietnam, Duvalier’s Haiti, Marcos’s Philippines, the Colonels’ Greece, and many other tyrannies. Indeed, the term “Free World” originally included Stalin’s Russia. And, not so long ago, the U.S. government had no scruples about providing military assistance to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Furthermore, on occasion the U.S. government has sought to overthrow democratic governments. Three of its success stories along these lines occurred in Mossadeq’s Iran, Arbenz’s Guatemala, and Allende’s Chile, where democratic governments were succeeded by vicious dictatorships. Based upon this record, observers might well conclude that, for U.S. officials, the defense of democracy has been less important as a motive than as a marketing device.

A good example of “democracy” as a marketing device is its employment in selling the U.S. program of military and economic aid to Greece in 1947. This program had arisen out of the U.S. government’s fear that the Soviet Union, then at loggerheads with the United States, stood on the verge of breaking through the Western defense line to the oil-rich Middle East. To plan President Truman’s address to the nation on the new policy, Francis Russell, the director of the State Department’s Office of Public Affairs, met on February 27 with the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee. The meeting records indicate that, when Russell asked if the speech should emphasize the conflict with the Soviet Union, he was told that it should avoid “specifically mentioning Russia.” Then perhaps, said Russell, the administration “should couch it in terms of [a] new policy of this government to go to the assistance of free governments everywhere.” This proposal was greeted enthusiastically, for it would be useful to “relate military aid to [the] principle of supporting democracy.” Or, as one participant put it, the “only thing that can sell [the] public” would be to emphasize the threat to democracy. Ultimately, then, the president’s March 12, 1947 address, which became known as the Truman Doctrine, did not mention the conflict between two rival nations, the United States and the Soviet Union, but instead emphasized “alternative ways of life,” in which the United States was defending the “free” one.

This approach not only misrepresented the motives of U.S. government officials, but the realities in the two nations targeted for the military and economic aid. Joseph Jones, who drafted the president’s address, recalled: “That the Greek government was corrupt, reactionary, inefficient, and indulged in extremist practices was well known and incontestable; that Turkey . . . had not achieved full democratic self-government was also patent.” According to the minutes of the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee meeting, participants agreed that the Greek government was a rotten one, though “not basically fascist.”

Thus, President Bush’s recent contention that his war in Iraq is designed to further the cause of “democracy” is not out of line with the statements of past U.S. government officials, who have not been very scrupulous about how they have packaged their policies. Nor is it out of line with the behavior of other governments, always eager to put the most attractive face on their ventures.

Even so, given the long-term abuse of the word “democracy” as a public relations device – as well as the collapse of the president’s earlier justifications for the Iraq War – we might be pardoned for viewing his sudden enthusiasm for democracy with a good deal of skepticism.


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omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

"Democracy", "Free trade”,” liberal societies", "globalization", "Human rights" etc are among the words and slogans that lost their original meaning and political significance through their constant use and conscious abuse by successive American administrations.
This charade has reached an unparalleled pinnacle with the Bush/Wolsfowitz administration in their wanton conquest of Iraq.
In Iraq, according to the first post conquest American "sponsored" Prime Minister, Iyyad Allawi, "Democracy" and "human rights" conditions are now WORST than during the worst days of Saddam Hussein's regime !
"Democracy" was primarily used to fragmentize Iraq and bring to power mullahs designated candidates that curtailed the "human" and "civil" rights of women and religious minorities; a development that even the American occupation acknowledged!
The general perception now in the Arab/Moslem world is not only to confirm that the USA was never sincere in its advocacy of these principles, a long standing perception, but a growing aversion to these principles per se...being the “tools” that led to the disastrous conditions now prevailing in Iraq.


William J. Stepp - 12/4/2005

What passes for democracy is really fascism. The free market alternative to democracy and fascism is anarchy and the market, sometimes known as anarcho-capitalism.
Get rid of the state, and the Halliburtons of the world can't get subsidized, and the Bush-Cheneys will have to find honest work satisfying demands of consumers, not voters.


John Cameron - 12/4/2005

Democracy where art thou ?????


William J. Stepp - 12/3/2005

The sordid reality is that all governments are brokers in pillage, and that political elections are, as H. L. Mencken pointed out, a kind of advance auction sale of stolen goods.


Keith Granger - 11/30/2005

Ok, i've put the drink down.

Mr Thomas, the weighty question i posed is whether you were careful enough to actually read and comprehend the article. And yes, that has already been answered.

The key thing being, the professor, Dr. Wittner, does not say that the US claimed they were "democratic". I mean, that is quite key isnt it. It's a fact, remains a fact, and as long as you fail comprehend such a fact, remains quite sad.

If you are unable to argue your point without misrepresenting what you're arguing against, then ...

There's nothing wrong with the writing, it's your reading and comprehension that's poor.

read it again, acknowledge your error, or provide quotes to support your claim, and then perhaps a move to the next point would be in order.

Regards.


Frederick Thomas - 11/29/2005


Mr. Granger:

Read my post again, except this time read it without a drink in your hand. You will find that all of the weighty questions you pose are already answered in it.

The sad fact remains that the Professor has started with an unsupportable assumption, of US Presidents using a "democracy" label to obfuscate the facts about foreign policy.

My concern is not just for the presidents of just one side, but for both, since he smears equally until he comes to Bush.

In that case he also attacks a country well on its way to a better freer life with a representative government as being part of some kind of fraud which only he can see. Sure.

I hate to see such poor writing. It was not always this way in American Universities.


Keith Granger - 11/29/2005

Mr Frederick Thomas on November 28, 2005 at 2:43 PM was perhaps not feeling well when he penned that one. Though it does look oddly familiar.

He says that the list from Mr. Wittner includes what Mr Frederick Thomas calls "governments which are democratically elected,". Of course, he doesnt say which ones. Whether you or i would consider the definition of "democracy" needed to be stretched to fit any in that group, is besides the point, but worth a mention anyway.

Mr Frederick Thomas says -

quote: But the key thing about this group is that most of them were not claimed to be "democratic" by the US, as the professor says.

Which group? The key thing is, the professor, Mr. Wittner, does not say that the US claimed they were "democratic". I mean, that is quite key isnt it.

Mr. Wittner does say - "In fairness, it should be noted that the U.S. government has economically and militarily supported many democratic nations. After World War II, it forged alliances with a good number of them."

Mr. Wittner does not mention any specific democratic nation the U.S. government supported.

Mr. Wittner then moves on to list "bloody dictatorships" the U.S. government has provided assistance to.

He goes on to say - "on occasion the U.S. government has sought to overthrow democratic governments.". And gives three examples of what he calls "success stories along these lines" and concludes the paragraph - "Based upon this record, observers might well conclude that, for U.S. officials, the defense of democracy has been less important as a motive than as a marketing device."


In other words, Mr Frederick Thomas' claim regarding Mr. Wittner is not only factually incorrect, but ...


I reckon the rest from Frederick Thomas needs no further attention.

***

BTW, thanks Dr. Wittner, great article, appreciated.


Frederick Thomas - 11/28/2005

...and you are bound to catch something.

In this case Mr. Wittner wanted to catch dictatorships, and he spreads to net very wide indeed. In the course of this he puts just about anyone we have ever dealth with into the pot of "dictatorship":

"Franco’s Spain,
Chiang Kai-Shek’s China,
the Shah’s Iran,
Somoza’s Nicaragua,
Batista’s Cuba,
Sukarno’s Indonesia,
the Saud family’s Saudi Arabia, Diem’s South Vietnam,
Duvalier’s Haiti,
Marcos’s Philippines,
the Colonels’ Greece,
and many other tyrannies."

This list only works if the definition of tyrannies and dictatorships is stretched.

The list contains governments which are democratically elected, but were of the wrong religion for some (Diem), were run by the military in opposition to the spectre of Communist dictatorship (the colonels, Franco), were authoritarian remnants of governments shattered by war (Chiang), were Royal (Saudia), etc.

But the key thing about this group is that most of them were not claimed to be "democratic" by the US, as the professor says. Perhaps "free," "independent" or "allied," or "friendly," but not "democratic," in most cases.

In other words, the professor's premise regarding US Presidents' alleged misuse of the term "democratic" is factually incorrect. The Soviet Union called itself "democratic", not any US President. Does the professor need this hypothesis so badly that its basic premise is demonstrably a non sequitur?

But the real purpose of this feast of mischaracterizations is to attack Bush. The first sentence makes it clear:

"George W. Bush’s recent claim that the U.S. war in Iraq is part of an attempt to spread “democracy” to the Middle East should not surprise anyone familiar with the use of that word to camouflage sordid realities."

But no one but lefty academics believes that Iraq is not proceeding rapidly-more rapidly than did Germany-toward representative government.

A constitution was duly agreed. 70% of the people approved-the dissenters being a 20% Sunni minority bent on blowing up all the others. Nationwide elections are in process, and will soon yield an elected government. What is the "sordid reality" the professor excoriates? Is he really upset because it is working out so well in Iraq?

In other words, the assertion of this article that US presidents called dictatorships "democratic" is not sustainable by the examples presented. And the implication that the same thing is going on in Iraq is demonstrably wrong.

This entire assemblage appears to be just another reason why lefties are losing politically, big time. No one believes their outdated jive anymore.



Tim Lacy - 11/28/2005

Dear Mr. Wittner,

I've long admired your work from afar. My copy of "Rebels Against War" is as dog-eared and highlighted as any of my books.

I loved this piece because you put into words something I've been thinking over for about six months: the abuse of the term democracy. Few things in the political world today makes me more sick than the invocation of that term to accomplish a good end by bad means.

All the best,

Tim Lacy

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