Home/Daniel Larison/The Real Bush Doctrine and the Real Iraq

The Real Bush Doctrine and the Real Iraq

Now that revolution has spread from Tunisia to Oman, however, the administration is rushing to keep up with the new dispensation, repeating the fundamental tenet of the Bush Doctrine that Arabs are no exception to the universal thirst for dignity and freedom. ~Charles Krauthammer

In fact, this isn’t the “fundamental tenet of the Bush Doctrine.” It is at most an assumption that went into making the so-called Doctrine, which Krauthammer once defined here. In 2008, Krauthammer wrote:

If I were in any public foreign policy debate today, and my adversary were to raise the Bush doctrine, both I and the audience would assume — unless my interlocutor annotated the reference otherwise — that he was speaking about the grandly proclaimed (and widely attacked) freedom agenda of the Bush administration.

The fundamental tenet of the Bush Doctrine isn’t that Arabs desire dignity and freedom. That isn’t what distinguished Bush’s advocacy for democracy promotion from that of his predecessors. No one seriously contested the claim that all people desire these things. Krauthammer did famously dismiss the idea that people might value natural loyalties and religion less than they value abstract freedom, which was badly wrong, but that doesn’t mean that there is no desire for freedom. That has never been the objection to democracy promotion. It isn’t that some people don’t desire such things, but that the institutions and habits of democracy cannot be built up and learned rapidly, especially when they are introduced overnight from outside in the wake of an invasion. There is also the small matter that desiring freedom and desiring a democratic form of government are not the same thing, and can frequently oppose one another.

The heart of the doctrine, as Krauthammer himself defined it in the summer of 2008, is that “the fundamental mission of American foreign policy is to spread democracy throughout the world.” That is indeed the last version of the Bush Doctrine as laid out in Bush’s Second Inaugural, and it is loopy. The Obama administration doesn’t seem to believe that, most Americans don’t believe that, and even a few neoconservatives don’t believe that this is the fundamental mission of U.S. foreign policy. Virtually no one in the U.S. has converted to the “freedom agenda,” because that agenda was a disastrous failure both in the way that it was implemented and in its assumptions about the U.S. role. One nation after the next has been rising up without much in the way of U.S. backing. Each time this happens, Bush’s assumption that it was necessary for the U.S. to be actively promoting democracy in Arab countries is made to look worse, not better. Those nations that have been “liberated” by the “freedom agenda” were mostly subjected to various degrees of semi-authoritarian or authoritarian misrule for years afterwards.

Krauthammer continues:

But whatever side you take on that question, what’s unmistakable is that to the Middle Easterner, Iraq today is the only functioning Arab democracy, with multiparty elections and the freest press.

It’s strange that Krauthammer would insist that “the Middle Easterner” is the one who would see it this way. It seems to me that these are the people least likely to see Iraq in these terms. It’s also not true. Lebanon has multi-party elections, it has more of a functioning democracy than Iraq, and its press is free. Recent political unrest aside, it is also a far better place to live than Iraq, which remains according to one ranking in the top ten of the world’s failed states. The result of this “functioning democracy” is a state that is listed by Freedom House as not free, and it is categorized by the Economist Intelligence Unit as barely qualifying as a “hybrid regime” rather than an authoritarian state. In the overall EIU score for Iraq, it leads such models of free government Madagascar and Kuwait by just .06 and .12 respectively. Those two are in the authoritarian category. The EIU rates the functioning of the Iraqi government at 0.79 on a scale of 10. Other countries on the list that boast similar “functioning of government” ratings are Liberia, Togo, Tajikistan, and Equatorial Guinea. A better term for Iraq would be the Arab world’s most dysfunctional hybrid state. Kazakhstan outscores Iraq on civil liberties, and Russia ranks ahead of Iraq in terms of electoral process and pluralism. For political culture, it is tied with Jordan and Azerbaijan.

Krauthammer believes that if Egypt were “to be as politically developed in, say, a year as is Iraq today, we would think it a great success,” which is simply mad. Egypt naturally rated worse than Iraq overall in 2010 according to the EIU, but their overall rankings were almost identical in 2008 (3.89 vs. 4.00). The point isn’t that Egypt was already doing well (it wasn’t), but that Iraq continues to do so badly. If Egypt improved to Iraq’s current level of political development, it wouldn’t have gone very far at all. It wouldn’t be seen as a great success, but would instead be regarded as a huge let-down.

War supporters have become so strongly attached to democracy promotion and the “freedom agenda” because they quickly ran out of excuses for the debacle in Iraq, but they are so intent on using Iraq’s political progress as their justification after the fact that they can’t see that Iraq is not free, barely democratic in the sense that we mean it, and sliding into a politics of authoritarian populism and sectarianism. They have to exaggerate that progress and pretend that Iraq is a “functioning democracy,” because the terrible costs inflicted on the Iraqi population and the terrible costs borne by the American military are completely inexcusable on the war supporters’ own terms if all that it has produced is an authoritarian or semi-authoritarian state increasingly in Iran’s orbit.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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