Got to Be Free: Did Bush's Foreign Policy Set the Stage for Middle Eastern Democracy?

Jacob Sullum

2/16/2011 12:01:00 AM - Jacob Sullum

As hundreds of thousands of Egyptians poured into the streets of Cairo, braving riot police, tanks and the government's plainclothes thugs in an ultimately successful effort to end Hosni Mubarak's 30-year dictatorship, Elliott Abrams realized something important: George W. Bush was right.

Writing in The Washington Post, Abrams, a deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration, credited his former boss with recognizing that "Arab nations, too, yearn to throw off the secret police, to read a newspaper that the Ministry of Information has not censored and to vote in free elections." Other Bush partisans echoed Abrams, praising the former president for insisting, as he put it in a 2003 speech, that "every person has the ability and the right to be free."

The Rascals, of course, said much the same thing back in 1969, but they did not get any credit in the wake of Mubarak's departure. Perhaps that's because their ideas about freedom did not have much influence on U.S. policy. But neither did George W. Bush's.

Running for president in 2000, Bush depicted himself as a realist, disdaining "nation building" and calling for a more "humble" approach to other countries. His "guiding question," he said, would be "what's in the best interest of the United States."

All of that seemed to change in the wake of the terrorist attacks a year later. But as Bush explained it, he merely developed a broader, more enlightened understanding of the country's interests.

"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe," Bush said in 2003, "because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. ... The advance of freedom leads to peace."

Although Bush's "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East" was exemplified by his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both invasions were initially justified on grounds of reprisal, deterrence and pre-emptive self-defense. Only later were they recast as campaigns to make Americans safer by replacing other countries' dictators with democrats.

"With the steady leadership of President Karzai," Bush bragged in 2003, "the people of Afghanistan are building a modern and peaceful government." He likewise insisted that "Iraqi democracy will succeed -- and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran, that freedom can be the future of every nation."

Eight years later, the best-case scenario in Afghanistan is a coalition between Karzai's corrupt cronies and the Taliban tyrants whose regime was the target of the U.S. invasion. Whether Iraq can avoid dissolving into sectarian violence after the departure of U.S. troops remains an open question. These dubious benefits have been purchased at a cost (so far) of $1.3 trillion and thousands of lives. That is the legacy of Bush's peace through freedom.

In other respects, Bush continued "excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East." His allies in the fight against al-Qaida included repressive regimes such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. He propped up the very dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia whose recent fall supposedly demonstrates the insights of his "freedom agenda."

The conflict between a long-term vision of liberal democracies living in peace with each other and the short-term fears of American politicians was evident in the Obama administration's timid response to the turmoil in Egypt. During nearly three weeks of protests, the vice president declined to call Mubarak a dictator, the secretary of state repeatedly recommended "an orderly transition" and the president, despite his 2009 speech in Cairo promising to "support (human rights) everywhere," never once said Mubarak should resign.

Mindful of democratic elections that have empowered illiberal forces such as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, President Obama, like Bush before him, worries that friendly autocrats will be replaced by hostile populists. Let's hope this fear, which underlies the long history of desperate despot coddling that Bush continued while condemning, does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy.