Paul Pillar

The Freedom Agenda Revisited

Given the neoconservative failure in the Middle East, as manifested in the results of the George W. Bush administration's policy in the region, I suppose it is not surprising that neocons would creatively seize upon any new happening there in an effort to salvage some sort of vindication. The policy results in question include America's standing in the Middle East dropping to all-time lows, and Iranian influence in the region attaining new highs. The centerpiece of the policy was a costly offensive war that did more than anything else in the recent history of the region to sour Middle Easterners on the idea of political change in the name of democracy and freedom and that left Iraq teetering on the brink of reignited full-scale civil war, with what even some who advocated the invasion acknowledge are extremely serious problems. For the time being any hope for stability in Iraq may run in the direction of more autocracy rather than more democracy.

Any headline-catching developments in the Middle East are thus for the neocons a welcome diversion from that record, and any developments that seem to have anything to do with possible political change in autocratic countries in the region can be embraced as if they were some kind of neocon intellectual property. Thus Max Boot asks “are we all neocons now?” and Elliott Abrams declares that revolt in Tunisia, demonstrations in Egypt, and marches in Yemen “all make clear that Bush had it right.”

So what exactly is the “it” that George W. Bush supposedly had right? That a lot of people in this region are unhappy with their political and economic lot? That enough of them are sufficiently unhappy that, given the right catalyst, they can put together some really serious and destabilizing street demonstrations? I wasn't aware that this was a subject of disagreement between neoconservatives and the Bush administration, on one hand, and American analysts of any different persuasion, on the other hand. No, disagreements arose where the beliefs of the neocons and Bush went further than that—to their faith that not only were the foundations of autocratic regimes in the Middle East unstable but that if those regimes could be knocked down, what would arise would necessarily represent an advance of freedom, of democracy, and of U.S. interests. No such thing has yet been demonstrated by the current unrest in the region. At a minimum, the neocon chickens are being counted before they have hatched, and with no assurance that they ever will hatch. Such counting seems rather risky on the part of Boot and Abrams, but then again, once it becomes clear the chickens will not hatch any time soon, the current claims will have long since been forgotten. And if making such claims represents recklessness on their part, it is consistent with the similar recklessness displayed before the invasion of Iraq, when the approach was not to analyze what would come after Saddam was toppled but instead to cheer the toppling and then, like Jerry Rubin, to groove on the rubble.

The relevant beliefs of the neoconservatives and of Bush went even further than that. They held not only that inside every oppressed Middle Easterner was the heart of a liberal democrat but also that longstanding political culture could somehow be overridden and that workable liberal democracies could emerge quickly (never mind the centuries it took Anglo-Americans to get from Magna Carta to where they are now). They further believed that a push from the United States is what was needed to make this fine new political world unfold (never mind that a made-in-U.S.A. label is one of the biggest handicaps an idea or initiative can have in the Middle East). And in the case of the Iraq War, they believed that democracy could be injected into the region through the barrel of a gun (never mind all the other damage that military force caused). Nothing in the current unrest in the Middle East lends support to any of those beliefs.

In a feature-length article about Bush's policies in the Middle East, Abrams mentions the Iraq War only once, and even then only in passing. (If I had advocated that war, I also would want to stay away from the subject.) What he does mention is correct: that Bush's “freedom agenda” was not just a rationalization of the war but instead a broader objective from which the war was derived. Of course, the war-makers badly confused the American public when they realized that launching an offensive war on behalf of a freedom agenda would be a tough sell, so they decided to sell it instead with scary tales about a dictator giving weapons of mass destruction to terrorists with whom he supposedly was allied—but that's another story. Abrams cites two manifestations of Bush's “freedom agenda” separate from the war. One is “support for the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon.” Again, where is the disagreement? Abrams strives to draw contrasts with President Obama and his administration, to the point of calling the administration's “abandonment” of the Bush agenda a “tragedy.” Did Barack Obama oppose the Cedar Revolution? I must have missed that debate, too.