Kagan on the Bush Democracy Promotion Legacy

In his monthly column for the Post today, Robert Kagan raises a truly important foreign policy issue which requires greater discussion - the role of democracy promotion.   He makes an argument I agree with wholeheartedly - that Bush never seriously pursued a "freedom" agenda.   He writes:

Yet there is another area where the administration claims to depart from the Bush legacy but really hasn't, and I wish that it would. That is the issue of democracy and human rights. Ever since Clinton's confirmation hearing, where she talked about three D's -- defense, diplomacy and development -- but not a fourth -- democracy -- the press has made much of this allegedly sharp departure from the Bush administration's "freedom agenda." (Vice President Biden's prominent remarks about the fourth D in Munich last month have been ignored because they didn't fit the storyline.) Thus the Times's Peter Baker writes that "Obama appears poised to return to a more traditional American policy of dealing with the world as it is rather than as it might be." Set aside what a funny sentence that is to anyone with even scant knowledge of American history and its traditions -- remember Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton? The more interesting question is whether the Bush administration ever seriously pursued a "freedom agenda."

As my Carnegie colleague and preeminent democracy expert Thomas Carothers points out, the idea that the Bush administration engaged in a massive effort to promote democracy around the world is mostly myth. While every U.S. president for the past three decades has engaged in some degree of democracy promotion, he writes, "the place of democracy in Bush foreign policy was no greater, and in some ways was less, than in the foreign policies of his predecessors." It did provide important support to struggling democracies in Ukraine, Georgia and Lebanon. But Bush ignored the systematic dismantling of democracy in Russia. Like Secretary Clinton, he did not let human rights get in the way of dealing with China. The Bush administration supported Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf until the bitter end. It backed away from challenging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to hold freer and fairer elections in 2005, and whatever ardor it had about pushing for democracy in the Middle East cooled significantly after the 2006 election of Hamas. Meanwhile, it worked closely with dictators in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Aside from Iraq and Afghanistan, where its stalwart support for democratic progress was undermined for many years by failed military strategy, it is hard to point to many places where the "freedom agenda" was ever seriously implemented.

The world would be a better and safer place if the Bush administration's policies had more closely matched its rhetoric. But in any case, as Carothers notes, the idea that "a major post-Bush realist corrective is needed represents a serious misreading of the past eight years." It would be ironic, to say the least, if in its desire to distinguish itself from Bush on this issue, the Obama administration wound up replicating Bush. Viva la revolución!

I couldn't agree with this sentiment more, and have written often about how what limited efforts the Bush team placed on "democracy promotion" was done in a way that grossly misinterpreted the formula America had tried to export since the days of FDR.   To me the American formula has had four components, all required for societies to succeed - democracy, open markets, personal liberty and the rule of law.  Somehow the Bush team simplisticly boiled that legacy down to just the magic elixar of "democracy" and free elections, as if just allowing people to vote would magically transform broken and conflicted societies.    Allowing Hamas to participate in the Palestinian elections was a break from our traditional formula, as they were allowed to stand for election while maintaining a strong and well funded militia, clearly ignoring any possible triumph of the rule of law.  

Kagan is perhaps too kind to Bush.  For by cloaking our anti-democratic methods in the Middle East -preemptive war, torture, coddling of dictatorships, rampant corruption in the rebuilding process in Iraq - in the language of democracy, i worry that Bush and the neocons did more than not adequately promote democracy around the world - and in fact did a great deal to profoundly undermine the very idea in the part of the world most in need of modernization and reform. 

Let the re-evaluation begin!