Three questions can be used to evaluate any public policy. Is it effective? Does it have unintended consequences that are undesirable, or that vitiate the policy aims? Is it ethical? If a public policy is ineffective, counterproductive, or morally wrong, we should judge it negatively.

The U.S. policy of forcible regime change, especially the recent version in which the goal has been to spark a wave of democratization throughout the Islamic world, can be evaluated using these criteria.

Alexander Downes argues that the policy is ineffective, but he doesn’t argue that forcible regime change is counterproductive or wrong. That is fine; ineffectiveness might be sufficient to condemn the policy.

But what if democracy promotion by military intervention worked, or could be made to work? We would still have to ask the other two questions.

In answering them, it pays to define the terms first. What kind of democracy has the United States been promoting by force of arms?

In Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has promoted something close to what the political scientist Robert Dahl calls “polyarchy”: a shallow procedural exercise in conducting elections, which becomes both the symbol and substance of democracy; the extent of most citizens’ political participation is the act of pulling a lever or filling out a ballot.

A deep democracy would entail inclusion and public deliberation—not only deliberation about the division of spoils within the state, but about policy goals. It would entail listening to others’ perspectives. It would require a free press and reduced threat of state violence. But if those conditions were met, the outcomes of inclusive and deliberative democracy might not be as U.S. policymakers desire. For example, after some deliberation, an inclusive democracy might decide that food self-sufficiency or a strong agricultural sector was worth preserving and promoting. Such a decision might lead to another that runs counter to U.S. agribusiness and “free market” ideology, such as to enact tariffs that shield the agricultural sector from the importation of farm produce subsidized by U.S. tax dollars.

Promoting democracy by military intervention is an oxymoron in ethical and political terms.

But let’s say the United States or some other power were using force to promote a deeper form of democracy, one that is richer and more participatory than the ritual marking of ballots for candidates backed by external powers. Even promoting this deeper form of democracy by military force would almost certainly lead to counterproductive side effects.

First, the context of forcible regime change often makes for an overly abrupt transition. Leaders installed by outside military force probably have not built the coalitions necessary to garner broad political support or learned the art of deliberation. If they have come to outside attention by accreting power through violence or other non-democratic means, these newly installed leaders may be as authoritarian as their predecessors. Thus the people installed at the top may be some of the least qualified for democratic leadership.

Second, as Clausewitz said, “In war the result is never final.” Amid resentment and ill will, the struggle for power continues after a new government is in place. And if forcible regime change teaches anything, it is that the way to power is brute force. Forcible regime change is therefore a recipe for more war in the form of sectarian, ethnic, or political violence.

Third, if promoting democracy elsewhere is supposed to be good for “them” and for “us,” that proposition needs to be re-evaluated. War entails the negation of others’ rights; killing is the ultimate negation. Further, war for any reason often concentrates power at home. War tends to militarize the domestic society of the intervener, even though it might, on occasion, lead to increasing the rights of women and minorities or trade unions. Usually, however, the military intervener diminishes its own democracy as it attempts to promote democracy elsewhere.

Promoting democracy by military intervention, then, is an oxymoron in ethical and political terms.

Finally, it is not as if war is the only means to promote, or at least not hinder, democratization. The United States might halt its support of the authoritarian regimes that depend on U.S. military aid, equipment, and advisors. We might support the development of indigenous democratic movements. We might, in other words, let those others out there take the lead and not require that they imitate our forms and march to our arrogant tune. We might just have to get out of their way.