A Whole New Level

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I can't even describe how frustrating it is to read things like this from Sheryl Gay Stolberg in The New York Times:

But Mr. Bush, most experts agree, has taken the American freedom agenda to an entirely new level, by trying to foster democracy in nations that have not known it before, like Iraq and Afghanistan. Some historians have called it folly, and Mr. Bush conceded in an interview with conservative commentators last year that his critics believe he is “hopelessly idealistic.”

One point I really try hard to make in Heads in the Sand is that it's incredibly foolish to view the Bush foreign policy primarily through this democracy lens. For one thing, Bush's record as a democratizer doesn't stand up to the most cursory scrutiny. There's been no consistency of application (Egypt? Saudi Arabia?), and no record of successes -- look it up and you'll see much more democracy on the march during the 1990s.

But even criticizing Bush's record on this score is almost besides the point -- an emphasis on democracy simply isn't what's noteworthy about Bush's policymaking. What's noteworthy about Bush is his effort to completely cast aside notions of institutional, legal, or even practical restraint in American conduct abroad. He wants to reorder international relations around a highly asymmetrical bargain where we simultaneously flout all kinds of multilateral processes while also engaging in an unprecedentedly high level of meddling in other countries' affairs. Iran can't go anywhere near uranium enrichment, but we won't sign the Comprehensive Test Ban and won't stop building a new generation of nuclear weapons. Rather than anything resembling a practical approach to helping democratic political movements, we threaten to decapitate any regime we don't like (while, yes, shouting "democracy!") and then act baffled and outraged when other countries try to acquire weapons capable of deterring us.

This is what it's all about and this is what it's always been about. Fostering democracy in new places isn't especially novel, and isn't something Bush has particularly emphasized in actual policymaking. What's more, at this point in time it's just ludicrous -- completely detached from what even the surge's advocates say they're doing -- to see the mission in Iraq as having anything at all to do with democracy. What we're doing over there is taking what was once known as "failure" (creating a new post-saddam despotism) and relabeling it "success."

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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