Paul Pillar

Breaking Down the Freedom Agenda

The multifaceted push by the George W. Bush to inject more democracy into the Middle East—a set of policies sometimes grouped under the label of the “Freedom Agenda”—has generated much debate about its effectiveness that even several years of added perspective have not resolved. The advent of the Arab spring three years ago led defenders of Bush's policies to claim this phenomenon as a positive consequence of those policies, while critics could still point to some glaring negative consequences.

An impediment to temperate discussion of this issue is how the biggest initiative not just of the Freedom of Agenda but of Bush's entire presidency—the attempt, known as the Iraq War, to inject democracy into the Middle East through the barrel of a gun—was such a blunder and debacle that it overshadows what Bush got right about the political ordering of the region. What he got right was more the diagnosis than the cure. The Middle East was—and still is, the Arab spring notwithstanding—more of a democratic desert than most other regions. And the paucity of channels in the Middle East for peacefully pursuing political objectives and acting on grievances can affect the United States, especially by providing a more fertile breeding ground for violent extremism.

In the current issue of Political Science Quarterly Bruce Gilley has an interesting article that takes a balanced look at the results of the Freedom Agenda. Gilley notes that many of the claims both for and against the proposition that Bush's policies successfully had a democratizing effect are expressed in “partisan, confused, and often contradictory language.” One conclusion of his own more rigorous analysis is that the Bush policies could be said to have stimulated democratization in the Middle East in large part through Middle Easterners reacting negatively to the policies themselves. “The Freedom Agenda rhetoric,” Gilley writes, “tended to elicit anger, resentment, and distrust across the Middle East.” Arab public opinion polls in 2006 and 2008 showed only 25 percent of respondents believing that the United States was sincere about promoting democracy in the region, with 65 percent disbelieving that. The rejection by the United States of the results of a free Palestinian election, which Hamas won, no doubt had a lot to do with that polling result.

The Iraq War was a negative, not a positive, model for people in the region. In other polling of Arabs, also in 2006 and 2008, only two percent of respondents thought Iraq was better off as a result of the war while 81 percent believed it was worse off.

Gilley says that these negative reactions had two visible effects. One was “to undermine the legitimacy of domestic democracy activists, who were disparaged as agents of an imperialistic United States.” But the other effect—and this is one of the ways in which the Bush policies could be said to have stimulated democratization—was the unintended one of creating “new political space for socialist, Islamist, and government/military reform advocates who sought to counter the Bush rhetoric with a new democratic rhetoric of their own.” Gilley cites as an example the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood announcing its own reform initiative in 2004, with demands for democratic freedoms and an end to emergency law.

This reaction involved a fusion of pro-democracy sentiment with an anti-U.S. and anti-Western variety of nationalism. In more recent Arab spring days, this has been seen, for example, in Iraqi citizens deriding the Saudi regime as “slaves of America and Israel” for dispatching Saudi troops to suppress unrest in Bahrain.

This fusion brings us back to the hoary dichotomy of democratic values versus hard-nosed U.S. interests, but with a different twist. The dichotomy may be real not so much because of pro-U.S. sentiments of dictators, but instead because of anti-U.S. sentiments of democrats. And that leads to the question of whether the sort of democratization that the Freedom Agenda wrought is such a good thing for the United States after all. Democracy per se is important for U.S. interests, including for those reasons having to do with propensity toward violent extremism, but anything that makes people more anti-American is also important for those interests, and for many of the same reasons. Perhaps an appropriate summary of the Freedom Agenda's consequences is that the Bush administration delivered some of the goods as far as democratization is concerned, but in the process damaged the goods in a way that made them less useful to the United States.

Image: Wikicommons.