The Obama administration inherits a foreign policy establishment that has undergone a radical transformation over the last eight years. Two linked developments, the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” and the resurgence of counterinsurgency doctrine, will cast a long shadow over the Obama White House, State Department, and Pentagon.

An emerging counterinsurgency culture, reflected in such interagency-oriented manuals as the recently released U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Guide, is permeating all government agencies that have a foreign policy orientation. President Obama already sent a clear signal about his attitude toward this counter-insurgency culture by asking Defense Secretary Gates and, more recently, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, Michael Vickers, to stay on at the Pentagon. Likewise, the Obama-Biden counterterrorism factsheet explicitly links the need to “prepare the military to meet 21st century threats” to the perceived need to create “a broader set of capabilities, as outlined in the…new counterinsurgency manual.”

In a speech delivered last October to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Vickers indicated that there was little reason to anticipate a slowing in the rapid resurgence of covert, special warfare methods under the incoming administration. He disclosed that the number of U.S. Special Forces, referred to as a “decisive strategic instrument,” will increase from the current level of 15,000 to 64,000 by “early in the next decade.” These soldiers operate in 60 countries around the world.

The Bush administration brought the United States firmly into the counterinsurgency (COIN) era. The question is not whether Obama will carry on this commitment to counterinsurgency. The question is how Obama will go about adapting the Bush approach.

Democracy Promotion

Although only formally institutionalized under George W. Bush, democracy promotion has had broad bipartisan support as a distinct foreign policy objective since the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and a number of counterpart organizations in the early 1980s under President Reagan. Significantly, one of the key initial strategic functions of democracy promoters was to carry out overtly some of the foreign policy objectives that were once the domain of covert agencies such as the CIA.

The interaction of the overt and the covert under Obama will largely be determined by an increasing theoretical convergence between counterinsurgency and democracy promotion. One key example of this was the extensive edited collection from the Council for Emerging National Security Affairs (CENSA), Countering Insurgency and Promoting Democracy, released in 2007. On the back cover, COIN guru and CENSA member John A. Nagl, a contributor to the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine, FM 3-24, and also a member of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a key source of Obama’s cabinet-in-waiting, calls counterinsurgency and democracy promotion “the most important policy topic of our time.”

The Bush administration more than doubled the democracy promotion budget — from $650 million in 2001 to a requested $1.72 billion in 2009 — largely owing to the counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was also a formal institutionalization of the “freedom agenda” as a key pillar of U.S. foreign policy. This institutionalization came about with the signing into law of the ADVANCE Democracy Act and Bush’s National Presidential Security Directive (NSPD) 58 entitled “Institutionalizing the Freedom Agenda.”

ADVANCE Democracy Act

First introduced in 2005, the ADVANCE Democracy Act (ADA) was later revised, passed in both houses with bipartisan support and, albeit with little attention, signed into law on August 3, 2007. Its supporters have trumpeted the legislation as “a fundamental component of American foreign policy.”

The initial ADA bill of 2005 was loosely based on a 2003 book by former ambassador, presidential speechwriter, and long-time democracy promoter Mark Palmer, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World’s Last Dictators by 2025. Palmer and some colleagues from the Hudson Institute wrote the original bill itself. Palmer was also instrumental in the creation of the NED and wrote President Reagan’s 1982 speech to the British parliament, “Promoting Peace and Democracy,” during which the president pledged to create new institutions that would help lead a “global campaign for democracy.”

New directives in the ADA called for “an enhanced role for United States diplomats” in promoting democracy, reinvigorated support for the Community of Democracies (first created under President Clinton), broader cooperation with other democracy-promoting countries, and financial support for the United Nations Democracy Fund, first proposed by Bush in 2004.

Additionally, U.S. ambassadors are tasked with developing annual democracy promotion strategies, and the secretary of State is mandated to create and assign democracy liaison officers to various U.S. missions abroad, including to U.S. “combatant commands.”

When introduced in 2005, the original ADA was dubbed by Moroccan journalist Mustapha Khalfi as the “most important bill to come out of Congress on democracy promotion since the 1983 initiative to establish the National Endowment for Democracy.” But the mainstream media all but ignored the ADA after it was signed into law in 2007. One prominent commentator on democracy promotion, James Traub, erroneously wrote that the ADA “never became law” in his 2008 book, The Freedom Agenda. Likewise, when assessing the presidential candidates’ position on democracy promotion in April 2008, the Council on Foreign Relations stated that “the bill never passed.” The ADA’s obscurity likely resulted from its burial within H.R. 1, the “Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007.” The original bill, according to the congressional website, is listed as never having become law.

The ADA encountered some resistance from the State Department. According to Mark Palmer, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice felt that the ADA was “too invasive of her turf.” After tough negotiations, the State Department “finally…reconciled themselves” to the ADA, and eventually it became law. The State Department also “cherry-picked” certain aspects of the bill and implemented them in the meantime.

One such cherry-pick was Rice’s creation of the Advisory Committee on Democracy Promotion (ACDP), of which Palmer and a number of other democracy promotion luminaries were members. In the last meeting of the ACDP on October 8, 2008, Rice said she was “very proud of the ADVANCE Democracy Act.”


According to a partial declassification on October 9, 2008, President Bush signed NSPD 58: Institutionalizing the Freedom Agenda, on July 17, 2008. This national presidential security directive “codifies the policies and practices for promoting freedom put in place by this Administration.” NSPD 58 is intended “to serve as a blueprint for future Administrations to promote democracy and freedom systematically.”

By making democracy promotion, in the words of Secretary Rice, a “national security imperative,” the “ultimate goal” of NSPD 58 is an ambitious one: “ending tyranny in the world.”

As with many presidential directives, the full text of NSPD 58 has not been disclosed. Responding to a FOIA request by FPIF, the White House’s Office of Administration, Executive Office of the President elected not to release it, stating that the NSPD is “not subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.”

Obama and Democracy Promotion

The Obama-Biden policy platform is clearly committed to democracy promotion. Implicitly linking democracy promotion to counterinsurgency efforts, one platform statement called for the increased integration of “civilian and military capacities to promote global development and democracy.” It also calls for the creation of the position of “Deputy National Security Advisor empowered to develop integrated strategies to build capable, democratic states and ensure policy coherence in the application of development and democracy programs as key elements of U.S. power.”

Obama also stated he will “significantly increase funding for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and other nongovernmental organizations.” In a similar vein, in its “legacy booklet,” the outgoing Bush administration has touted its increase of NED funding by 150% since 2001.

Although Obama didn’t cast a vote when the Senate passed the ADA in 2007, he likely supported it. According to Palmer, Obama’s former advisor, Samantha Power, “wanted Obama to be one of the co-sponsors of the [ADA] and they had agreed basically to co-sponsor it.” In the end, Obama did not sponsor it, but Palmer expressed that this didn’t have “anything to do with the substance of the Act.”

Reached by telephone and citing the close proximity of the inauguration, a spokesperson from President Obama’s transition team declined to comment on the likely implications of the ADA and NSPD 58 on his incoming administration. Likewise, key members of Obama’s democracy transition team democracy sub-group, Gayle Smith, Michael McFaul, and Jeremy Weinstein, did not respond to interview requests via email.

Many democracy commentators have lamented that Bush’s repeated conflation of democracy promotion with the Iraq War has given the long-time foreign policy priority a bad name. As Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote, “under George W. Bush, democracy promotion has been widely discredited through its close association with the Iraq War.” Accordingly, Obama has pledged to rebrand democracy promotion so that it “cannot become a casualty of the Iraq War.” Seeking “durable bipartisan support” for his democracy policies while avoiding “mere rhetoric,” Obama’s team has said they will foster “concrete outcomes that will advance democracy.”

What exactly the Obama administration means by “concrete outcomes” remains unclear. The U.S. democracy promotion apparatus has historically been criticized for double standards and nefarious meddling in the internal affairs of unfriendly regimes. As Barbara Conry has written, NED and its affiliates “often work against American interests and meddle needlessly in the affairs of other countries, undermining the democratic movements [they were] designed to assist.” Sometimes the United States has supported genuine democrats while also supporting authoritarian allies, and sometimes the U.S. has undermined popularly elected democracies while seeking to install or prop up less democratic regimes that are friendlier to U.S. interests.

One thing is clear: The Bush administration’s institutionalization of the “freedom agenda” as a core pillar of U.S. foreign policy, combined with Obama’s apparent commitment to democracy promotion and the new counterinsurgency paradigm suggests that, despite appearances that may emerge to the contrary, we are likely to see more continuity than change in U.S. foreign policy.

, Anthony Fenton is an independent researcher and journalist based near Vancouver, B.C., Canada. He is currently completing a book on Canada-U.S. foreign policy integration and transformation, and can be reached at: fentona (at) shaw (dot) ca.