Michael Gerson’s Bush loyalism is evergreen:
Iraq did illustrate the daunting difficulties of counterinsurgency and nation-building. But it did not discredit preemption.
Gerson cites the 2002 West Point speech as the core of the Bush Doctrine. The speech was part of the year-long effort to justify the forthcoming invasion of Iraq. In the speech, Bush made the following claims:
Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies.
We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best. We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign non-proliferation treaties, and then systemically break them. If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long [bold mine-DL].
Bush was laying out an argument for preventive war to counter threats that did not yet exist. He made two claims that have never been vindicated: some regimes cannot be contained, and some regimes will offload WMDs to terrorists. These claims remain as dangerous and paranoid as they ever were. These were some of the principal justifications offered for invading Iraq. Of course, in Hussein’s case, there were no weapons. Nothing has happened anywhere else to support the idea that containment and deterrence are useless against various “rogue” states. The issue has never been trusting the “word of tyrants.” As ever, it is every regime’s desire for self-preservation that ensures that deterrence works. The Obama administration has continued far too many Bush-era practices, but launching drone strikes to attack and disrupt known terrorist groups is obviously quite different from large-scale preventive warfare against states that may eventually acquire unconventional weapons. It is a sign of how desperate Gerson become to defend Bush’s major policy errors that he would think this is a credible argument.
There are good reasons to question and challenge the “permanent, covert war,” as there has always been good reason to challenge the open-ended, apparently limitless definition of the “war on terror,” but that is something different from the Bush Doctrine. The terrorist threat has been and continues to be exaggerated to justify the scope and duration of the “war on terror,” but it is at least a real threat. The same could never be said of the threat from Iraq.
As for the previous administration’s “democratic idealism,” Gerson simply ignores the reality that the actual “freedom agenda” during the Bush years led to the empowerment of Islamists and sectarian parties wherever it had any impact. On its own terms, Bush’s democracy promotion efforts were a huge failure. As virtually everyone apart from pro-war dead-enders acknowledges, Iraq badly undermined the cause of political reform and opposition in Arab countries. There is an enormous and critical difference between U.S.-led and U.S.-driven democracy promotion and demands for political change from local opposition movements. Gerson throws them all together as if they were the same thing. It remains to be seen whether Tunisians and Egyptians have simply deposed individual rulers or if they have done something more significant than that, but what is clear is that the “Arab Spring,” to the extent that it changes anything for the better, has done so in spite of the poisonous legacy of the Bush administration.