Do As We Say—If You Dare

The West is no better at promoting democracy today than it was in 1956.

Hungarian riot police in Budapest

With a clutch of new books, a multitude of speeches, and a score of conferences already under way, no one can claim that the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution has gone unmarked. The Hungarians themselves commemorated their tragic revolt against Soviet communism with a street riot: Just as post-revolutionary France remained divided for decades between royalists and Bonapartists, so, too, is much of post-Communist Europe still divided between former Communists and former anti-Communists, and nowhere more so than in Budapest.

But as the anniversary moves into its second week, I’d like to celebrate in a different way—by asking what, if anything, we in the West have learned since 1956. As many have already observed, the U.S. role in the Hungarian revolution was hardly admirable. Although American governments had spent much of the previous decade encouraging Hungary and other Soviet satellite states to rebel—using radio broadcasts, speeches, even balloons carrying anti-Communist pamphlets—no one was prepared for the real thing. As late as June 1956, a clueless CIA (sound familiar?) published an internal document declaring that “there really is no underground movement” in Hungary.

As a result, the initial U.S. reaction was confused—to be polite about it. At first, the White House dithered about whether the president ought to call a “day of prayer,” or call on the Red Cross, or get the United Nations to do something. Only after four days of street fighting did the U.S. secretary of state, John Foster Dulles—a man who had spoken often of liberating the “captive nations” of Eastern Europe—finally declare that the American government did not consider the Hungarians “potential allies.” The message was clear: The West would not intervene. Or almost clear. At the same time that Dulles was reassuring everybody that nothing would be done, Radio Free Europe was explaining to its listeners how to make Molotov cocktails and hinting at the American invasion to come.

To use contemporary language, one part of the U.S. government was “promoting democracy” and another part was “advocating stability.” The result was a bloody mess. The Hungarians kept fighting even after Soviet tanks arrived, believing help was on the way. Hundreds died. Western policy in the region suffered a setback from which it took nearly 40 years to recover.

Has anything really changed since then? Once again, we have an American president who speaks openly and, no doubt, sincerely about human rights and democracy in the Middle East and around the world. He’s supported by Congress, the press, and even whole fiefdoms of the State Department that dedicate themselves to democracy promotion. Nongovernmental organizations, sometimes with U.S.-government funding, have emerged around the world to do the same. It would hardly be surprising, then, if a group of Arab democrats came to assume that we would naturally support an anti-totalitarian rebellion in their country today.

But what if they acted on this assumption? Try, if you can, to imagine what would happen if an imaginary group of pro-democracy Saudis staged a street rebellion in Riyadh. No one, of course, would be prepared. No one, of course, would have ever heard of any of the rebels before. Some in the administration, in Congress, and in the press would immediately hail the “new democrats,” just as in 1956. Arabic-language radio stations, staffed by Saudi exiles, might broadcast messages of encouragement to the rebels, just as in 1956.

Meanwhile, others in the administration—alarmed by the potential for a Middle Eastern war, worried about oil supplies, horrified by the unknown rebels—would support the ousted royal family and call for maintaining the status quo, just as in 1956. The White House would mutter something about humanitarian aid, call upon the United Nations—and finally wind up supporting the old regime, just as in 1956.

The result: By simultaneously supporting democracy and stability, we would anger the rest of the Arab world; make U.S.-Saudi relations impossible, however the rebellion was resolved; and probably damage, in multiple unforeseeable ways, U.S. interests all over the world.

Scholars always bang on about the debate between “realism” and “idealism” in U.S. foreign policy, but the truth is that for most of the last century we’ve been simultaneously realistic and idealistic almost all the time—simultaneously in favor of democratic change and deeply wedded to status quo stability—much to the confusion of everyone else.

And the moral of this story? Don’t blame George W. Bush. Chaos in U.S. foreign policy is nothing new. But pity the nations, whether it’s the Hungarians in 1956 or the Iraqi Shiites in 1991, who take our democracy rhetoric too literally. Sometimes we really mean it—and sometimes we don’t.