Dick Cheney Just Buried the Bush Doctrine

The former vice president rejected democracy-promotion in the Middle East. And today's conservatives agree with him.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

At a moment like this, I’d love to hear some foreign-policy commentary from George W. Bush.

Let me explain. Sometime between the 9/11 attacks and the start of his second term, Bush decided that the only way to make America truly safe from jihadist terrorism was to spread democracy and freedom across the Muslim world, and beyond. “We have seen our vulnerability—and we have seen its deepest source,” Bush declared in his second inaugural address. “For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny—prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder—violence will gather.” He swore that America would no longer conduct business as usual with its dictatorial clients. “We will,” he insisted, “persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right…. All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors.”

Strong stuff. And for a time, top Bush officials tried to act on it. Later that year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shocked an audience in Cairo by declaring that, “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”

I mention this because earlier this week, Dick Cheney spent an hour on Charlie Rose and, in the guise of attacking President Obama, ripped his former boss’s foreign-policy vision to shreds. Cheney explained that he had recently traveled through the Middle East meeting with a “lot of my friends going back to Desert Storm days.” By which he meant Sunni tyrants in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Persian Gulf. Their message to him: The United States isn’t supporting them steadfastly enough.

Cheney wholeheartedly agreed. The Obama administration, he declared, “has undermined these relationships, some of which go back 30, 40, 50 years.” By which he meant: When, during the Arab Spring, the peoples of the Middle East did exactly what George W. Bush had urged them to do—rise up against dictators who had oppressed them for “30, 40, 50 years”—the United States did not “ignore” their “oppression and “excuse” their “oppressors” enough.

Cheney showed how it’s done. Speaking about Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the general who orchestrated a coup against Egypt’s democratically elected Islamist president and then carried out a shockingly brutal crackdown against peaceful protesters, Cheney offered, “I’d help Sisi every chance I get.” What followed was a series of hilarious and vaguely chilling interchanges in which Rose struggled to assimilate Cheney’s utter contempt for democracy and human rights.

When Cheney opined that, “The attitude in Egypt is that this president, Obama, backed the Muslim Brotherhood,” Rose responded that Obama had merely supported the outcome of a free election. Then, perhaps remembering Bush’s grandiose words about Arab democracy, he ventured that surely the Bush administration would have done the same. To which Cheney responded, “I don’t think so” and “it was a big mistake.”

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Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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