Elliott Abrams offers up a risible defense of Bush’s “freedom agenda”:
For Obama and this effort to make History, the Egyptian or Iranian or Cuban people are an obstacle, not the object of the endeavor. That’s the key difference with how Bush saw foreign policy. The Freedom Agenda was ultimately about people, not countries or rulers, and the goal was to empower them.
While this may make for good partisan point-scoring, Abrams’ description of the “freedom agenda” has little to do with how the “freedom agenda” worked in practice. In Iraq, the practical effect of this agenda was to empower sectarian forces and a semi-authoritarian government and to call it successful democratization. The Bush administration was a vocal supporter of the victors of the various “color” revolutions during the 2000s, and in every case this had to do with backing those forces that the administration perceived to be anti-Russian or, in the case of Lebanon, hostile to Syria and Iran.
To the extent that there was any guiding principle behind the “freedom agenda,” it wasn’t the empowerment of people in these countries, but the empowerment of specific factions and leaders that would align their countries with the U.S. That is why Saakashvili was celebrated as a great reformer and democrat by “freedom agenda” boosters in the U.S. despite the fact that Georgia became less free politically under his rule, and that is why the same boosters greeted the defeat of his party in the parliamentary elections with dismay and lies about the “pro-Russian” orientation of the opposition. For the most part, the “freedom agenda” was the rhetorical cover that the Bush administration used to defend its misguided and destructive policies. Meanwhile, the people in the countries that “benefited” from the agenda were often left in worse conditions than they were before.
Hard-liners continue to invoke the plight of the people in other countries while advocating for policies that harm them, who naturally reject them and welcome their end. Abrams pretends this isn’t so:
This nuclear deal ignores the people of Iran and strengthens their oppressors, just as in Cuba.
Yet all indications are that most dissidents in Iran welcome the deal and the sanctions relief that goes with it, and Cubans are overwhelmingly in favor of closer ties with the U.S. and an end to the embargo. When one actually consults the people in these countries, one finds that most of them understandably welcome policy changes that remove barriers and punitive measures that do them harm. Improving conditions inside these other countries isn’t the responsibility of U.S. foreign policy, and it isn’t the primary purpose of the changes in Iran and Cuba policy, but it is more likely to happen now than if these changes hadn’t taken place. As usual, the ones ignoring the people in these other countries are the hard-liners here that want to use them as bludgeons in the debate but couldn’t care less what happens to them. They are the ones so preoccupied with their hostility to the existing regimes that they are oblivious to the effects their preferred policies have on the population.