The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Bush’s failed freedom agenda

February 16, 2011

Condi Rice writes some fancy words this morning:

As I watched Hosni Mubarak address the Egyptian people last week, I thought to myself, “It didn’t have to be this way.”

In June 2005, as secretary of state, I arrived at the American University in Cairo to deliver a speech at a time of growing momentum for democratic change in the region. Following in the vein of President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, I said that the United States would stand with people who seek freedom. This was an admission that the United States had, in the Middle East more than any other region, sought stability at the expense of democracy, and had achieved neither. It was an affirmation of our belief that the desire for liberty is universal – not Western, but human – and that only fulfillment of that desire leads to true stability.

The problem is that history is a tricky thing. Bush and Rice both gave wonderful speeches at times on the merits of democracy. But after 9/11 and throughout the remainder of his presidency, Bush expanded security cooperation with dozens of corrupt authoritarian regimes. These included, among others Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt (yes Egypt), Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Pakistan, Qatar, Syria, Uzbekistan, and Yemen. This expanded security cooperation often included additional foreign aid packages for military and security forces that repressed domestic oppositions, it included coordination on intelligence gathering that, again, frequently targeted domestic oppositions, and it included numerous instances in which the U.S. government supported torture, rendition, and secret detentions. None of these practices are consistent with democracy or human rights — or an “affirmation” that the “desire for liberty is universal.”

Furthermore, even though Bush added money to democracy promotion programs during his presidency — the National Endowment for Democracy went from $40 million in 2001 to $100 million in 2008 and the Middle East Partnership Initiative added another $150 million per year in 2005 — the problem was always one of proportionality. The defense budget was roughly $600 billion in 2008 while the intelligence budget and supplemental appropriations for the global war on terror added another $150 billion. I think it is fair to say that the Bush administration spent far more on secret CIA programs than on democracy assistance. Democracy promotion under Bush — like almost all presidents in history — was always subordinated to strategic and economic interests.

But what is perhaps most striking is that, even after all the “freedom agenda” rhetoric, in the end, global freedom suffered under Bush –though this is not a point you’ll hear from those claiming vindication of George W. Bush. Freedom House’s 2011 annual report concludes:

According to the survey’s findings, 2010 was the fifth consecutive year in which global freedom suffered a decline—the longest period of setbacks for freedom in the nearly 40-year history of the report.

This decline (which followed several years of stagnation) is directly attributable to the legacy of the global war on terror and the global financial crisis.

Rice concluded her op-ed this morning by focusing on the road ahead and how the United States can and should help promote democracy in Egypt and beyond. But, I think what will strengthen the US hand ahead is a candid and real discussion of where we’ve been. Thomas Carothers made this case in a Foreign Affairs debate with Paula Dobriansky, Bush’s Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs back in 2003:

The “relentless portrait of the United States as a country uniquely devoted to democracy promotion, is part of a pattern of rhetorical overkill by administration officials that weakens rather than strengthens this country’s credibility in the eyes of others. People around the world are quite capable of seeing that the United States has close, even intimate relations with many undemocratic regimes for the sake of American security and economic interests….
A more honest acknowledgment of this reality and a considerable toning down of self-congratulatory statements about the United States’ unparalleled altruism on the world stage would be a big boost in the long run to a more credible pro-democratic policy.”


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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.