In keeping with this, he also hopes to see democracy promotion become a feature of Pentagon's routine interactions with foreign militaries (a little-noticed but vitally important tool of American foreign policy). In many places, from Venezuela to China, officers play a prominent political role, and Blair argues that it's worth trying to leverage that reality to positive ends. When officers from other countries visit the U.S. on training and exchange programs, their American hosts shouldn't just schlep them around to the usual military bases, he says, but also to town halls, newsrooms, and other locations that show democratic institutions in action. Course material should explicitly cover international humanitarian law, the rationale for civilian control of the military, and the practical mechanics of how democracies work. The point, he says, should be to show patriotically-minded officers why it might be in their own interests, and those of their armed forces, to support liberal values back at home.
But what about situations like the one in Bahrain, where the U.S. interest in maintaining its base seems to override the desire to press the local government on human rights? "Okay, in the real world we have a mix of interests," says Blair. "But let's not be exclusive about our interests. We should have both of these missions and not pretend that they're completely irreconcilable." In reality, he says, few U.S. partners are going to break off relations (or stop delivering oil) just because the Americans are nudging them to open up politically.
That's probably true enough, but I'm not sure I completely buy the rest of the argument. Making democracy a bigger part of military-to-military exchanges sounds all well and good, but is it really going to have much of an effect? In many authoritarian regimes, liberalization threatens senior officers with a huge loss of power and prerogatives. In Egypt, Burma, or Pakistan, the military has entrenched business interests that make them loath to give up influence. Appealing to them to recognize the innate superiority of democracies is likely to have less weight than the realization that their own positions could be severely undermined by reform. And taking them on a tour of the Capitol isn't about to change that calculus.
Blair acknowledges the problem, but argues that the militaries in such countries are often split between corrupt higher ranks and a younger, more idealistic class repulsed by their superiors' malfeasance. A high-minded appeal to the second group's patriotic instincts can thus bear fruit even when their ossified elders resist. (It was just such a group of younger officers, he points out, who helped to push President Ferdinand Marcos out of power in the Philippines in 1986.) One risk of this approach, of course, is that it might tend to promote the image of Washington as an inveterate meddler, even when the intentions involved are good. And perhaps it's also worth remembering that younger officers aren't always would-be democrats, yearning to be free -- see Greece in the 1960s and 70s.
In Blair's defense, it's important to note that modesty is an important part of his vision. He's not advocating grand nation-building experiments like the one in Iraq whose failure we're commemorating this week, 10 years after the start of the war. It's no accident that words like "gradual," "incremental," and "pragmatic" permeate his conversation. And he certainly doesn't share the neo-conservative fondness for toppling autocrats by force. Indeed, Blair goes out of his way to praise people like Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, advocates of "non-violent conflict" who strive to promote gradual, peaceful resistance to authoritarian regimes. (For what it's worth, Blair has also criticized his ex-boss's penchant for drone strikes against terrorists, saying that the Obama administration's remote execution of the war on terror does more harm than good by galvanizing anti-American sentiment in the countries targeted.)
I doubt that closing the gap between America's strategic interests and its idealistic longing to spread democratic values will be as easy as Blair seems to suggest. And he acknowledges that his effort is partly motivated by politics -- specifically the need to insulate the Pentagon from congressional critics who assail it for inadequate attention to human rights. But what's most striking about the ideas he's articulating is the fact that he's saying them in the first place. This is something new, and it's definitely to be welcomed.