It All Comes Back To The Bush

Andrew Sullivan rounds up here, here and here

Jennifer Rubin:

The Obama administration needs to think long and hard about how it can convert its occasional rhetorical flourishes into concrete polices that can assist democracy advocates not only in Tunisia, but in Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere. If Obama wants to do some more productive “Muslim Outreach,” he should stop trying to ingratiate himself with despotic leaders and show that America is, and will continue to be, on the side of those yearning for freedom.

Recall when President George W. Bush talked about democracy taking hold in Iraq and then the region? Now Bush’s vision seems very prescient. Shouldn’t we all be in favor the freedom agenda? Criticized at the time as too Pollyannaish and too ambitious, Bush’s second inaugural address is worth reading again in full. This section is particularly apt:

We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people. America’s belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty.

Some, I know, have questioned the global appeal of liberty–though this time in history, four decades defined by the swiftest advance of freedom ever seen, is an odd time for doubt. Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals. Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery. Liberty will come to those who love it.

One question that deserves further consideration: How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia? For now, the current administration had better get on the right side of history.

Adam Serwer:

Rubin doesn’t even attempt to prove causation — eight years ago, the U.S. invaded Iraq, and last week there was an uprising in Tunisia. Ergo Bush deserves the credit. This is deeply paternalistic — in Rubin’s version of history, the Tunisians who faced down the security forces of an autocratic regime are practically bit players in their own political upheaval.

The point is not to make an actual argument, but to inject a political narrative that will retroactively vindicate the decision to go to war in Iraq, as though the American people would ever forget that the Bush administration justified that decision by manufacturing an imminent danger in the form of WMD that were never found.

“Democracy in the Muslim World” was not the primary reason given for invading Iraq, and even as a retroactive justification it remains weak. As Matt Duss pointed out last year, the RAND Corporation did a study concluding that “Iraq’s instability has become a convenient scarecrow neighboring regimes can use to delay political reform by asserting that democratization inevitably leads to insecurity.” But as Donald Rumsfeld might say, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so Rubin presses on:

One question that deserves further consideration: How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia? For now, the current administration had better get on the right side of history.

Perhaps the most bizarre of Republican foreign policy instincts is the belief that the President of the United States can force the foreign policy outcomes he desires through sheer force of will. This is what Matthew Yglesias has dubbed the “The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics.”

Dan Murphy at the Christian Science Monitor:

One question in Ms. Rubin’s column does have a clear answer however. “How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia?” she asks.

Having covered Iraq and Egypt full time between 2003-2008, and having explored the question of whether the US invasion of Iraq would spur regional political change at length with academics, politicians, and average folks in and out of the region over a period of years (and talked to people in touch with current events in Tunisia the past few days) the answer to her question is clear: “Little to nothing.”

The sectarian bloodletting in Iraq, the insurgency, and the US role in combating it claimed tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, and Iraq remains unstable today. The regional view of the Iraq war was and is overwhelmingly negative, the model of Iraq something to be avoided at all costs. Before I read Rubin’s piece earlier today, Simon Hawkins, an anthropology professor at Franklin and Marshall, was kind enough to chat with me about Tunisian politics and history.

Hawkins, whose dissertation was about Tunisia, has been coming and going from the country since the late 1980s. He recounted (unprompted) how the word “democracy” had been given a bad name among many of the Tunisian youth (the same sorts who led the uprising against Ben Ali) because of the Iraq experience, “That’s democracy,” a group of Tunisian youths said to him in 2006 of Iraq. “No thanks.”

The Obama Administration’s policies towards the Arab world, largely focused on counterterrorism cooperation and avoiding pushing hard for political reform in autocracies like Egypt, are in fact an almost straight continuation of President Bush’s approach, particularly in his second term. It’s true that Bush made a ringing call for freedom in the Middle East a centerpiece of his inaugural address, but soon came up against the hard reality that close regional allies like Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia weren’t much interested in tolerating challenges to their rule.

After the Muslim Brotherhood tripled its share in Egypt’s parliament in one of the fairest (but still fraud marred) Egyptian elections in decades and the Islamist group Hamas swept free and fair Palestinian elections in 2006, the US took a big step back from Arab democracy promotion. That’s a situation that persists today.

More Rubin:

While those in Tunisia tell me there is no specific sign of an Islamist presence yet, it remains a real concern for those pressing for a secularized, democratic government.

One final note: while Muslim autocrats in the region have reason to worry, Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations makes a convincing case that regimes do not face the same threat of instability. In Jordan and Morocco, for example, the kings in those countries enjoy a “perceived legitimacy.”

Nevertheless, George W. Bush must be pleased to see the debate breakout over the best route to Middle East democracy. It was only a few years that the liberal elite assured us that Muslim self-rule was a fantasy.

Daniel Larison:

I don’t know about “the liberal elite,” but people opposed to the Bush administration’s illegal war in Iraq and ruinous “freedom agenda” actually argued that it would be extremely difficult to construct Western-style liberal democracies in countries that had no political tradition of representative or constitutional government. This is true. It is extremely difficult, it doesn’t seem to be worth the effort and resources devoted to it, and it remains a foolish thing for the U.S. to pursue as a major foreign policy goal. What we also said was that it was outrageous and wrong to invade another country, trample on its sovereignty, wreck its infrastructure, and impoverish its people. What was even worse was to claim that we had liberated it, when we were actually handing it over to the tender mercies of sectarian militias and establishing what turned out to be a repressive government that often resorts to police-state tactics. In 2003, Muslim self-rule was already a reality in Turkey, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. The fantasy was the idea that the U.S. could forcibly topple an authoritarian government and readily install a functioning liberal democratic government in Iraq, and that this would then lead to regional transformation. Except for the first part, none of this happened. So far, the Tunisians seem to be managing much better on their own than Iraq did under the tutelage of U.S. occupiers.

Greg Scoblete:

Rubin does raise a significant question, however, regarding U.S. policy towards Tunisia. It could be, as her source suggests, that there exists a wellspring of knowledgeable people in the U.S. federal government who understand Tunisian society and have a keen grasp of how to ensure that the country’s revolutionary tumult is channeled toward a stable, sustainable representative democracy (provided it’s not too Islamist, of course). If that is the case, telling whatever government does emerge “what we expect” makes some sense, as it presumes we know what we’re talking about.

If, however, we don’t actually know what’s best for Tunisian society going forward, outside of a general desire for it to have a representative and relatively liberal government, should we really be butting in?

More Rubin:

Now a final note: The left blogosphere seems to have wigged out over the suggestion that George W. Bush and the successful emergence of a secular, democratic Iraq has anything to do with all this. For starters, it is amusing to see that those voices, fresh from the smear on conservatives regarding the Arizona shooting, are now all about “causation.” But more seriously, had democracy failed in Iraq, had the country descended into chaos, and had Iraqis laboring for a secular, democratic Muslim country been killed and exiled, do we imagine this would have been good for the prospects of democracy elsewhere? Recall that it was the left that said that democracy was alien to the Middle East. Bush was right; they were wrong. And the notion that democratization and rebellion against despotic regimes do not spread regionally after a successful experiment is belied by history (e.g. Central America, Eastern Europe).

Larison responds:

Well, the country did descend into chaos, Iraqis laboring for a secular country were killed and exiled*, and that wasn’t good for the prospects of democracy elsewhere. These also happen to be the effects of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, which involved invading and devastating a country for bogus national security reasons and then trying to dress up the entire debacle as an experiment in democratization. The outward forms of democracy didn’t entirely fail in Iraq, but what those forms did was politicize ethnic and sectarian divisions and fuel years of inter-communal violence. Looking at the chaos unleashed by what war supporters kept insisting on calling “democracy,” nations throughout the region associated “democracy” with foreign occupation, civil strife, and constant violence. For that matter, there has been no “successful emergence of a secular, democratic Iraq.” There is an elected government with increasingly authoritarian and illiberal habits governed by sectarians pretending to be secular nationalists.

Rubin continues:

Recall that it was the left that said that democracy was alien to the Middle East. Bush was right; they were wrong.

No, Bush’s critics understood, usually better than his supporters, that Iran had some measure of constitutional and representative government before the Pahlavis, and Turkey has been gradually developing as a democratic republic since WWII. Opponents of the disastrous war and the “freedom agenda” said that democratic and representative government was alien to almost all Arab countries. Lebanon was and remains the exception. That was true. Maliki’s semi-dictatorship in Baghdad does little to change that assessment. Bush based his conviction that the U.S. should install democratic government in a predominantly Arab country on the general lack of such governments in Arab countries, which democratists concluded was a principal source of jihadism. To the extent that Bush and his allies were serious in wanting to democratize Arab countries, they were taking for granted that democratic government was alien to these countries, which is why the U.S. had to introduce it directly through active promotion. What Bush and his allies also said was that democratic government was part of a “single model of human progress,” and that therefore every society should be governed this way, and furthermore that every society was capable of governing itself this way. That was the far-fetched claim that most of Bush’s critics couldn’t accept, because it is nothing more than an ideological conviction.

Will at The League:

The analytical gymnastics Jennifer Rubin is forced to perform here to defend the invasion of Iraq are pretty impressive. If the Tunisian revolution spurs reform in neighboring countries, her line of reasoning goes, Iraq’s quasi-democratic political process must be having a similar effect in the region. I know little about the Middle East and less about Tunisia, but let me suggest one important distinction: If the “Jasmine Revolution” inspires emulation in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it will have something to do with the fact that Tunisia’s political upheaval was a genuinely organic, popular movement that isn’t perceived as the result of outside meddling. Whatever the merits of Iraq’s new government, it will never enjoy that type of currency in the region, which is why overblown claims about the positive regional consequences of our invasion remain so unpersuasive.

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Filed under Africa, Foreign Affairs, Iraq

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