Like the proverbial broken clock that is right twice a day, those advocating a policy of aggressive democracy promotion abroad, habitually wrong in the past, now claim vindication. “Today, everyone and his cousin supports the ‘freedom agenda,’” writes the columnist Charles Krauthammer in the wake of Mubarak’s fall. He calls out those late to the game: “The left spent the better part of the Bush years excoriating the freedom agenda as either fantasy or yet another sordid example of US imperialism.”
Not just neocons are crowing. Leon Wieseltier of the center-left New Republic takes liberals to task for being “intellectually unprepared” for Egypt’s revolution. Liberals’ rejection of Bush’s doctrine of democracy promotion, he says, wed them by default to an “acceptance agenda.” The inevitable toppling of tyrants lays bare the fallacy of a myopic and misnamed “realism” that hitches the nation’s wagon to the wrong horses.
But do events in Egypt really lend support for Bush’s foreign policy? To believe so is to engage in flawed inductive reasoning that extrapolates from Egyptian’s desire for freedom justification for a hubristic strategy of delivering our version of it, by force if necessary. It’s bogus logic. Were it otherwise, the US would be far more popular in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, the exemplar of the past administration’s grandiose doctrine.
Krauthammer and others have conveniently ignored other salient facts, too, principally: if the freedom agenda was about freedom, then, by definition, the fate of those who the US delivered from despotism should have been of paramount importance. But in the main, the apostles of liberty were callously unmoved by the chaos engulfing Iraq. A “stuff happens” nonchalance prevailed as Iraqis were denied the most elemental freedom, that from anarchy. Krauthammer could only muster a pathetic apologia as thousands of Iraqis died in the mayhem: “We midwifed their freedom. They chose civil war.”
Also overlooked is the niggling detail that, when free to choose, people might not pick leaders we like. Somehow this was never given careful consideration by the freedom thumpers—at least not before fair elections in Gaza brought Hamas to power in 2006. Shorn of its naiveté, the White House hastily backtracked, as this expression of free will was intolerable. The US promptly sanctioned the newly elected government. A few speeches about liberty later, the curtain came down for good.
During its short-lived existence, dating from Iraq (Afghanistan was premised on traditional national security grounds) through Gaza, the freedom agenda did not seriously impact US relations with other Middle Eastern despots, namely the House of Saud, with whom petroleum, not principle, was prioritized, but also Mubarak’s Egypt and Hashemite Jordan, amongst others. So, really, the doctrine’s scorecard turns on Iraq, where it is far from clear that Iraqis’ well being had little to do with Saddam’s ouster. Indeed, high principles were but a veneer for a different freedom agenda: teaching the Middle East that the US, though bloodied after 9/11, still had the freedom to do as it pleased.
That events in Egypt do not vindicate Bush’s misguided foreign policy is clear to those best placed to render such a judgment: Egyptians. Indeed, future bilateral relations are sure to be more strained, largely because of resentment over US imperialism. But all of this should not obscure the fact that the freedom agenda contained a kernel of truth. Tyranny does indeed foment terrorism. Recognition of the link could inspire an enlightened foreign policy promoting those elements critical to more responsive governance, such as constitutional liberties. Such a strategy may appear to lack ambition, but it does offer a long-term vision for change that isn’t so demonstrably hypocritical.
Most importantly, however, a genuine Middle Eastern freedom agenda would begin by tackling American dependence on oil, which requires our bedding down with the region’s petro-tyrannies. Is this realistic? Probably not. Americans, regrettably, feel entitled to cheap oil. As a result, liberty, or what Bush called in his second inaugural address, “God’s gift to humanity,” will remain frustratingly elusive—unless the freedom agenda’s advocates get their way, in which case it will be America’s unsolicited “gift” to the world.