Freedom Fraud: President Bush and the Neocons Say They're Today's Real Idealists; That Their Foreign Policy Spreads Democracy and Doesn't Coddle Dictators. They Say It. They Just Don't Do It

By Yglesias, Matthew | The American Prospect, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Freedom Fraud: President Bush and the Neocons Say They're Today's Real Idealists; That Their Foreign Policy Spreads Democracy and Doesn't Coddle Dictators. They Say It. They Just Don't Do It


Yglesias, Matthew, The American Prospect


BY THE FALL OF 2003, THE MAIN ARGUMENT BY WHICH THE Iraq War was sold to the public--that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that it was likely to give to terrorists--was looking pretty threadbare. Tacking with the wind, George W. Bush took advantage of the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a government-funded private agency that seeks to help groups around the world fighting for democracy, to reposition the brewing conflict by waxing Wilsonian.

He proclaimed that "from the Fourteen Points to the Four Freedoms, to the speech at Westminster, America has put our power at the service of principle." The Iraq invasion, it turns out, would not be about Saddam Hussein handing his soon-to-be-constructed nuclear bomb to al-Qaeda after all. Instead, it would be part of a new "forward strategy of freedom"--the boldest step yet in a campaign to transform the Middle East into a sea of democracies, thus draining the swamp of tyranny in which terrorism grows.

The specific plan of action was finally bruited in February, when we heard that by June, the president would use the occasion of a G-8 summit on Sea Island, Georgia, to unveil a "Greater Middle East Initiative" aimed at boosting the level of foreign aid to nongovernmental civil-society groups in the region and thus promoting democracy. Like other Bush foreign-aid initiatives, it was a worthy, if modest, plan. But it was not to be. A draft of the plan was leaked that month to the Arabic press, provoking a firestorm of criticism from Arab dictators and leading the administration to rethink the whole thing.

The Bush administration's foreign policy is built on two grand claims. The first is a pragmatic one: that the administration has been uniquely successful in fighting the war on terrorism. This is an argument into which former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke has lately poked several capacious and damaging holes. The second claim is more historical and intellectual: that the administration has abandoned traditional foreign-policy realism in favor of a neoconservative ideology that blends the left's idealism with the right's ardor for military force and disregard for multilateral institutions. This claim positions the neocons as the 21st century's true warriors for freedom who will no longer brook alliances of convenience and support for dictators. ("Stability," Bush said in his NED speech, "cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.") And unlike the first assertion, which Clarke and others have countered, this is a claim on which Bush hasn't really been challenged at all. Bush even told The New Yorker's Ken Auletta that he was "the greatest human-rights president in history."

Is he? In a word, no.

The reality is that the "forward strategy of freedom" is yet another in a long string of administration smokescreens. While the White House has certainly adopted the longtime neocon policy goals of regime change in Iraq and unflinching support for Israel, along with serving up a great deal of humanitarian rhetoric, its actual policies vis-a-vis the rest of the world smack of the right's long standing affection for dictators who promote America's short-term political and economic interests. In fact, Bush has pursued a set of policies that have left the world substantially less free than it was before he took office. Some progress has been made in Iraq and Afghanistan. But much larger countries like Russia, China, and Indonesia have moved backward, while the overall impact of the wars in Iraq and against al-Qaeda has been a wide-ranging set of clampdowns across the Middle East and in the former Soviet Socialist Republics of Central Asia to which the administration has largely turned a blind eye--except when it actively abetted them.

THE STORY BEGINS IN AFGHANISTAN. CLEARLY, RESPONDING to the September 11 attacks was not only legitimate but necessary. Besides, the prewar regime was truly appalling, and its downfall opened the possibility of a major improvement in the regional human-rights situation. …

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