Krauthammer and the “Bush freedom agenda” fallacy

By Adam Serwer

Ever since the uprisings began unfolding in the Middle East, conservatives have struggled to make the case that they vindicate George W. Bush’s vision of history. This morning, Charles Krauthammer attempts a somewhat nuanced rendition of this argument, insisting that the Mideast events represent a triumph for Bush’s “freedom agenda”:

Now that revolutions are sweeping the Middle East and everyone is a convert to George W. Bush’s freedom agenda, it’s not just Iraq that has slid into the memory hole. Also forgotten is the once proudly proclaimed “realism” of Years One and Two of President Obama’s foreign policy -- the “smart power” antidote to Bush’s alleged misty-eyed idealism.

Bush’s “freedom agenda” has been so narrowed by his supporters as to be virtually unrecognizable from what it actually was. The American people didn’t support war in Iraq because they wanted to establish a democracy; they supported the war because the president of the United States told them that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and falsified a connection to al-Qaeda and that implied a willingness to use them.

Beyond the disastrous invasion of Iraq, Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” was mostly characterized by the bipartisan continuity of support for despotic client states, except where the U.S. refused to adhere to the results of elections we didn’t like, as when Hamas prevailed in Gaza. Krauthammer’s argument that Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi was sufficiently frightened by the invasion to give up an arsenal he won’t be able to use against protesters now has merit, but that in and of itself doesn’t justify the invasion of Iraq, either.

To narrow the “Freedom Agenda” to simply believing the people have a right to self-determination is to excise everything about it that was objectionable. What’s exciting about what’s happening in the Middle East is that it is not happening as result of American military intervention, which augurs for a more lasting and stable outcome. The protests don’t vindicate the idea that American military intervention is a necessary precursor to democratic transition in the Middle East; they suggest the opposite conclusion.

The invasion, and subsequent instability, also provided other despotic regimes in the region with an excuse to avoid democratization by pointing to violence in Iraq.

Now, it can be argued that the price in blood and treasure that America paid to establish Iraq’s democracy was too high. 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. Its democracy is fragile and imperfect - last week, security forces cracked down on demonstrators demanding better services - but were Egypt to be as politically developed in, say, a year as is Iraq today, we would think it a great success.

Look, we still do not know how all of this is going to turn out, and I think this vastly overstates the health of Iraq as a democracy. But not only is Iraq among the states being rocked by popular protests, arguing that a democratic Egypt that looks like Iraq does today would be a great victory is to ignore the years of war, terrorism, ethnic strife, and thousands of deaths that have characterized the intervening years in Iraq. Would a relatively stable democratic Egypt without all those things be really great? Sure. But what does that have to do with Iraq?

Facebook and Twitter have surely mediated this pan-Arab (and Iranian) reach for dignity and freedom. But the Bush Doctrine set the premise.

No matter how many times and in how many ways conservatives write this, it never stops being patronizing. Protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Iran are not rising up because President Bush gave them a pat on the head and told them they were worthy of dignity and freedom. Their inspiring courage, their bravery in the face of brutality and despotism, is a triumph all their own.

At bottom, there’s a very basic contradiction at the heart of the conservative interpretation of today’s events. On the one hand, they argue, the success of the protests vindicate Bush’s faith in their democratic yearnings. On the other, they argue, Obama is doing everything wrong. Yet if Obama’s doing everything wrong, even as some of the protests continue to succeed, what that really shows us is that we aren’t the important actors here. This isn’t about us. And it isn’t about Bush.