Was Bush Really a Champion of Democracy?

The father of the "freedom agenda" might have reacted to Ukraine's revolution in the same way Obama has.

Reuters/Larry Downing

For five years now, it’s happened again and again. A dictatorship somewhere wobbles, protesters crowd the streets, and the Obama administration strikes a careful tone, urging respect for human rights while trying to safeguard various American interests. And then, voila, a journalist contrasts Obama’s cautious realism with the democratic idealism of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

The latest example appeared above the fold in Tuesday’s New York Times, via the usually excellent Peter Baker. Baker starts by reminding us that Ukraine, which is currently undergoing a revolutionary spasm, endured one 10 years ago too. Back then, Bush delivered an epic second inaugural address in which he vowed to make spreading freedom the centerpiece of American foreign policy. Obama, by contrast, has not used Ukraine’s current crisis to “spread freedom in a part of the world long plagued by corruption and oppression” or “made global aspirations of democracy the animating force of his presidency.”

Did you catch the linguistic slight of hand? Baker is comparing Bush’s words to Obama’s deeds. He’s implying that Obama’s failure to make democracy promotion “the animating force of his presidency” constitutes a break with the policies of his predecessor. The only problem is that there’s no evidence that Bush made democracy promotion “the animating force of his presidency” either. Not even close.

In 2007, the Carnegie Endowment’s Thomas Carothers conducted a useful autopsy on the Bush administration’s democracy-promotion efforts. Its conclusion: Bush was a lot like his predecessors, maybe slightly worse.

First, the continuity: Like Bill Clinton before him (and Barack Obama after him), Bush transacted business as usual with the large authoritarian powers of China and Russia because he lacked the power to make them change their domestic policies. Contrary to public perception, Bush’s policies toward America’s allies in the Middle East didn’t change much either. Bush hugged the Saudis close. Rhetorically, he was toughest on Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, but even there “the Egyptian strongman has paid no price (other than a delay of free trade agreement negotiations) for pointedly defying the administration’s plea for free and fair elections.” Bush boosted funding somewhat for pro-democracy programs in the Middle East (though not elsewhere), yet those “modest, nonconfrontational efforts [fell] safely within the comfort zone of autocratic governments.” And while the Bush administration did break momentarily from tradition when it pushed Israel to let Hamas contest the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, it responded to Hamas’s victory by trying to undo the election results by force.

Then there were the innovations. Most obviously, Bush invaded and overthrew two tyrannical Muslim regimes. Those invasions dramatically inflated his democratic rhetoric, especially after the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq forced him to find a new rationale for a war that was costing America billions of dollars and thousands of lives. But the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq weren’t primarily about democracy promotion. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld telegraphed the Bush administration’s refusal to devote meaningful resources to building Afghan democracy when he said in an October 2001 press conference, “I don’t think [overthrowing the Taliban] leaves us with a responsibility to try to figure out what kind of government [Afghanistan] ought to have.” True to his word, Rumsfeld successfully resisted efforts to deploy NATO peacekeepers outside of Kabul in the days after the Taliban’s fall, thus kneecapping nation-building efforts right from the start.

In Iraq, the administration’s democratic exertions were similarly underwhelming. After Saddam Hussein’s ouster, the Bush administration first tried to hand over power to an appointed Iraqi government, then devised a complex caucus system that gave the U.S. substantial control over the political process. Only after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani sent his supporters into the streets to demand elections for the government that would write Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution did the Bushies acquiesce. And, once again, the administration’s deep hostility to nation-building kept it from devoting anywhere near the resources necessary to give Iraq a decent shot at constructing a stable, unified democracy after Saddam’s fall.

The key difference between Bush and the presidents who came before (and after) him wasn’t the way he used 9/11 to promote democracy, but the way he used it to massively expand America’s military reach. Much of that expansion occurred not via American invasions but through closer relationships with undemocratic allies like Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan and Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia. Under Bush, fighting terrorism became what fighting communism had been for most of the cold war: a get-out-of-jail-free card for any thug seeking American assistance. The U.S. cooperated with “friendly tyrants” before Bush’s presidency too, Carothers notes, but “despite President Bush’s grand freedom agenda, the number of such cases has increased during his time in office.” According to Freedom House, the world’s percentage of democracies, which had grown sharply in the 1990s, stopped rising under Bush.

None of this means that Obama’s record on democracy promotion has been perfect. In 2009, he may have waited too long to back the Iranians protesting their country’s stolen election, though at least some in the Green Movement wanted America to keep quiet so as not to discredit them. In Egypt in 2011, by contrast, Obama publicly demanded a rapid transfer of power even though Hillary Clinton and others in his administration feared the consequences of showing Mubarak the door too quickly.

But the key insight missing from commentaries like Baker’s is that Obama’s greatest act of democracy promotion was his insistence that the United States stop behaving as if it is permanently at war. By declaring a “war on terror” bounded by neither time nor space, and thus justifying torture and a vast expansion of secret, unlawful spying, Bush significantly undermined American democracy at home. Obama has not gone nearly far enough in subjecting American anti-terror policy to the rule of law. But simply by declaring the war on terror over, he has paved the way for some restoration of democratic control. He’s also made the United States slightly less eager to jump into bed with whichever dictator claims to be fighting a “war on terror” of his own.

Putting the United States on a permanent, global wartime footing, as Harry Truman did with NSC-68, and Bush did in response to 9/11, may be great for democratic rhetoric. After all, presidents must find some way of convincing Americans to pay in blood and treasure for wars that aren’t directly necessary for their own safety. But cold wars and wars on terror are bad for democracy promotion itself, since they rationalize an assault on democratic norms at home and become a magnet for foreign dictators seeking American help in brutalizing their own people.

The “democratic idealist” currently back home in Texas never understood that. Luckily, the “cautious realist” in the White House does.