The “Freedom Agenda” Was a Disaster for the Countries Affected By It
Bill Keller’s description of the Bush administration’s record on human rights is flawed:
George W. Bush made “the freedom agenda” a signature of his administration, but America’s moral authority was seriously compromised by the excesses of the war on terror.
Keller thinks these two represent the contradictions in Bush-era foreign policy. This is what he means when he says that Bush’s human rights record was “mixed,” rather than describing it accurately as abysmal. The Bush administration put detainees in indefinite detention, tortured some of them, renditioned others to be tortured by other governments, and created a humanitarian disaster with its invasion of Iraq. Those were some of the more well-known “excesses” to which Keller refers in passing. The administration also lent support to political changes overseas that strengthened forces of illiberalism rather than weakened them, and it did so mostly in a misguided, failed effort to expand U.S. influence in ex-Soviet states and the Near East. Those are the fruits of the so-called “freedom agenda.” If we judge the “freedom agenda” by its effects rather than by its rhetoric, we can see that it was part of what was wrong with the Bush administration’s record on human rights.
So Keller gives the “freedom agenda” far too much credit for having anything to do with improving political and legal conditions in other countries. The administration was always selective in determining where to promote the “freedom agenda,” but that wasn’t the main problem with it. In almost every case in which the administration actively supported political change abroad, political and legal conditions remained unchanged or worsened. Protections for political rights and civil liberties remained the same or weakened in most of the states that “benefited” from the effects of the “freedom agenda.” The “freedom agenda” contributed to the global decline of freedom that occurred during the last decade.
Pundits often contrast Bush’s supposed enthusiasm for supporting foreign dissidents and human rights with Obama’s supposed indifference. There is some truth to the claim that Obama has de-emphasized U.S.-led democracy promotion, but as usual the change is not as great as partisans would have everyone believe. More important, the contrast usually takes for granted the false notion that Bush’s enthusiasm for democracy promotion and backing foreign dissidents made for better U.S. policy and produced better results in other countries. It did no such thing. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Obama would not be interested in imitating an approach that had failed.
Daniel Henninger builds his latest column around the conceit that Bush’s “freedom agenda” pushed the Democratic to abandon human rights issues:
The big disruption, the event that drove the Democratic left off the human-rights train, was George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda.”
On the surface, this might seem plausible, if not for the reality that the “freedom agenda” was a disaster for human rights and the cause of promoting democracy abroad. One needn’t get off “the human-rights train” to recognize that the so-called “freedom agenda” was calamitous for the countries affected by it. Any analysis that doesn’t take this as its starting point is bound to be very misleading.
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