Was Bush Right?

Cross Posted on Huffington Post

Perhaps the extremism of the modern-day Tea Party dominated GOP has caused me to look back more fondly on the tenure of President George W. Bush.  There’s just something about arguments in favor of eliminating the Department of Education that make me hearken back to those with the decency to construct a veneer of “compassionate conservatism.”  Still, given the damage that Bush administration foreign policy caused to our nation in terms of international stature and strained relationships with our allies, I am shocked that I’m finding myself asking whether President Bush is to be applauded for one aspect of his foreign policy.

A Tunisian dictator flees the country, large-scale protests erupt in Jordan and Yemen, in Egypt President Mubarak struggles to hang onto power in the country he has ruled for nearly 30 years.  If you’re having flashbacks to the years of George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” you’re not the only one.  As government reform and democracy burst on the scene in the Middle East, we have to ask ourselves, was President Bush right?

Let’s be clear, I was opposed to the Iraq War.  I think the Bush Administration deceived the American public, took their eye off the Afghani region where the real terrorist threat was, and had absolutely no plan for the reconstruction.  Furthermore, the Bush administration botched nearly every aspect of the occupation at a tremendous human cost to Iraqis and Americans  After we came up empty-handed in Iraq with no WMD’s, Bush switched to an argument for Iraqi invasion based on Democratic Peace Theory.  He argued in essence that we should promote democracy in the Middle East because democracies don’t fight one another.  He also argued that we should stop coddling friendly Middle Eastern dictators in the name of stability.

Was there something to his argument that democracy in the Middle East was worth encouraging and perhaps even fighting for, even at the cost of alienating supportive dictators?  In his words:  “…The reason why I'm so strong on democracy is democracies don't go to war with each other. And the reason why is the people of most societies don't like war, and they understand what war means.... I've got great faith in democracies to promote peace. And that's why I'm such a strong believer that the way forward in the Middle East, the broader Middle East, is to promote democracy.”

Before we all send letters of apology to POTUS #43 and download a copy of Decision Points to our iPad, it seems like we’ve got to ask ourselves two questions.  First, are we really better off with messy democracies rather than friendly dictators?  And second, did democracy in Iraq play a positive role in promoting revolution in Tunis and Cairo?

On the first count, I’m inclined to say that we are actually better off with messy democracies.  The argument that democracies don’t go to war with one another sounds simplistic but is actually backed up by a significant amount of data.  In spite of challenges measuring data involving squishy concepts like “democracy” and “peace,” few dispute that a strong correlation exists.  Correlation is not the same as causation but there’s definitely something to the relationship.  There’s also virtually no data on interactions between democracies which are imposed by foreign occupiers (like Iraq) rather than chosen by the people so it’s hard to say how regime change like what we had in Iraq fits into this model.  There was however more to the Bush “Freedom Agenda” than the Iraqi War.

If we put aside the theoretical and focus on the present situation in Egypt, I still think we ought to take a risk and go with the messy democracy.  I know that Mubarak is a key ally in the Middle East.  I know that Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel is a critical component of regional stability.  I know that it is entirely likely that the Muslim Brotherhood would win at least a plurality were elections to be held.  However, with Islamic extremism alive and well, rampant unemployment, and no foreseeable peace deal between Israel and Palestine, please remind me again what is so great about the status quo in the Middle East?  Kai Bird writing in Slate argues that: “President Barack Obama has a ‘Shah problem’ in Egypt.”  Change is coming in Egypt as it came to Iran in the late 70’s.  We can either align ourselves with the agents of change or defend an oppressive dictator who has turned his country into a police-state in which anyone can be arrested at any time for anything.

It seems to me like our decision to support the Shah in Iran against the people did not exactly led to the US having the best relationship with Iran. We ended up with extremists in power anyway and the Iranian people viewed us (rightly) as supporting a cruel and ruthless dictator.  Let’s learn from this past experience.  To quote from President Bush: “Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom and never even have a choice in the matter?"

The second claim, that Iraq has provided a model of democracy to be replicated is a bit harder to back up.  Larry Diamond writing a year ago in the Journal of Democracy argued that a successful democracy in Iraq could hasten the rise of Middle Eastern democracies: “Were Iraq to progress politically, first by democratically electing a new government this year and then by having it function decently and peacefully as U.S. forces withdraw, that could gradually change perceptions in the region.”  I see little evidence that this has actually occurred.  While political freedom is certainly high on the list of Egyptian priorities, the common theme of anti-government protests across the region has been the lack of economic opportunity.  In this area, Iraq hardly provides an inspiring example.  While improving, unemployment in Iraq remains stubbornly high. The country continues to be plagued by water and electricity shortages.  US Officials have openly warned that this lack of services represents the largest threat to the Democratic regime in Iraq.

Many Iraqi citizens have put their government on notice that they share many of the frustrations of their brothers and sisters across the region with Shiite hard-liner Hakim al-Zamili noting: “Surely, what is happening in the Arab countries will expand to include Iraq if the Iraqi government fails to fulfill its promises and pledges given before the elections.” On the other hand, I have yet to hear one example of a Tunisian, Egyptian, Jordanian, or Yemeni speaking admiringly of the democratically elected government in Iraq.  Perhaps if the Iraqi’s had themselves overthrown their dictator in favor of a democratic government rather than being forced into one by a foreign government, Iraq might provide more of an inspiring example for others.

So, I suppose on the bright side that keeps my view of the Iraq War relatively uncomplicated.  I still don’t think it was worth the huge price in lives and treasure.  However, in terms of standing with the people of the Middle East, let’s channel a little of the best of George Bush’s statements in our approach.  While we’re at it, let’s exhibit internationally some faith in our chosen form of government.  Our democracy can certainly be messy at times.  We can get frustrated with the lack of progress and disappointed in the year’s electoral results but we keep at it because we know, there’s always another election.  I can’t say it better than Sir Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”