Other than sharing headlines for the past couple of weeks, the crisis over ISIS and the Hong Kong protests seem like very disparate situations. However, recently, it was revealed that the protests had been planned in April by Department of State-related interests. Thus, if true, both can be seen as chapters in a very different narrative: the United States’ often-counterproductive efforts to spread democracy across the world.
The post-World War II era has been heralded as the proof of “democratic peace”: the spread of liberal norms and growing trade linkages, coupled with American military and economic primacy, have resulted in fewer wars and civilian deaths than any other 60-year period. Or have they?
America has sponsored corrupt open-door dictatorships in Indonesia, Chile, Guatemala, and many other countries. After investing in military training and political takeovers, the United States created an array of client terror states: 26 of the 35 states that used torture on an administrative basis in the 1970s were recipients of American economic and/or military aid. These states imposed repressive economic models that provoked more civil unrest and instability — which ISIS demonstrates is continuing today.
Many in the foreign policy community have referred to ISIS as the result of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In destroying Saddam’s secular administration, American replaced it with a mostly Shiite regime. Occupation caused unemployment in Sunni areas by closing factories and expecting the market to compensate workers; it didn’t. The Shiite administration systematically dispossessed upper class Sunnis of their assets, who lost their political influence. Rather than promoting religious harmony, American occupation in Iraq exacerbated sectarianism and Sunni resentment, sowing the seeds for ISIS’ rise.
Even today’s efforts to defeat ISIS demonstrate the same shortcomings that have characterized those past tactics. The United States military cannot effectively combat unconventional warfare, as has been demonstrated from the Tet Offensive to Afghanistan and Iraq. Though we eliminated many leaders of terrorist organizations, the group returns stronger than ever. After all, bombs cannot beat ideas.
If anything, sparking backlash in foreign countries has enabled the construction of the faceless, oppressive United States and only increased recruitment. President Obama has called to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, but behind the colorful rhetoric, America has no clear military strategy. As in 2003, we are relying upon incomplete, faulty intelligence. Failing to learn from the mistakes of Afghanistan and Iraq risks replicating them in new places and eras.
Hong Kong is one such locale. The Chinese government recently ruled to limit the eligible candidates in Hong Kong’s 2017 elections and sparked the largest protests on the island in decades. Originally a civil disobedience movement launched by democracy activists Occupy Central, tens of thousands of ordinary Hong Kong residents have taken to the streets in the past two weeks. Most are college students, though young families and pensioners have also been spotted. Though unlikely to influence Chinese policy, protest does serve as an important voice for public dissent. When genuinely representing the voices of many, it has the potential to result in regime change — just look at the Arab Spring.
However, while students may be in the streets, the leaders of Occupy Central are all well-known collaborators with the State Department, National Endowment for Democracy, its subsidiary the National Democratic Institute, and other prominent American think-tanks and pro-democracy institutions. From the funding to the organization to the leaders, Occupy Central is intimately tied with foreign interests and services — most prominently the U.S. State Department through NDI. “Democracy” is characterized by self-rule; an agenda shaped by foreign interests is anything but.
It’s simply Washington and Wall Street attempting to control the interests of Hong Kong. Thus, if the protests do succeed and China lets the leaders run for office, the people won’t be running Hong Kong. Rather, it’ll be foreign interests through the proxies of think-tanks, the media, and the like. Sound familiar? Now, it’s unlikely that Hong Kong or China will become the new Middle East. It is far more likely that people will become angered at yet another sign of American intervention, further damaging our image abroad.
It’s high time to write the ending of the continuing narrative of American democracy promotion. Unfortunately, it appears that the Obama Administration is penning yet another chapter.
Contact Debnil Sur at debnil ‘at’ Stanford.edu.