The Democracy Agenda

Ross thinks I've been too hard on Bush's democracy agenda:

Meanwhile, both Matt and Hamid make the point that when Bush really wanted a policy course pursued - namely, the invasion of Iraq - the opposition from the professionals in the State Department and elsewhere was steamrolled. Which is true enough, and I don't think there's any question that invading Iraq was a higher priority for Bush than the larger reorientation of American diplomacy in a more pro-democracy direction. But I think the contrast between how Iraq played out and what's happened to the freedom agenda doesn't just speak to Bush's priorities; it also speaks to the unfortunate truth that it's become easier for an American chief executive to invade a foreign country than to control the more banal, day-to-day workings of his own diplomatic corps.

I really don't think that's right. To understand the difference here, let's take a look at this slice of Peter Baker's original article, something Ross labeled a "depressing bureaucratic anecdote[]":

Defiance of Bush's mandate could be subtle or brazen. The official recalled a conversation with a State Department bureaucrat over a democracy issue.

"It's our policy," the official said.

"What do you mean?" the bureaucrat asked.

"Read the president's speech," the official said.

"Policy is not what the president says in speeches," the bureaucrat replied. "Policy is what emerges from interagency meetings."

The bureaucrat is sounding silly and, well, bureaucratic here, but in a fundamental sense he's exactly right. The president gave a speech about the democracy agenda, but he never put a democracy agenda together. In all policy areas, but especially in foreign policy and diplomacy, saying things isn't the same as changing policies. Like if you want to cut taxes, you can't just say "let's cut taxes" you need to submit budget documents, work with members of congress, do some calculations, etc. Even an operation as slipshod as Bush's domestic policy team manages to get this much done.

On democracy promotion nobody bothered to say which policies, exactly, were changing. Presumably Bush didn't mean that the CIA should start arming Saudi opposition groups. But what did he mean? That Egypt should have its aid cut if it didn't hold free and fair elections? Well, he doesn't seem to have proposed any such legislation. These are complicated issues and I sometimes think people have unfairly criticized Bush for not "doing something" about autocracy in Pakistan but when it's not clear what should be done, but that's just the point it's not clear what should be done and if the president wanted a democracy policy he needed to, yes, have some meetings and figure out what that policy was.