Bush's Misguided Crusade

November 19, 2003 Topic: Grand Strategy Tags: Bush Doctrine

Bush's Misguided Crusade

Critics and supporters alike have hailed the President's speech of November 6 proclaiming that the United States would adopt a "forward strategy for freedom in the Middle East.

Critics and supporters alike have hailed the President's speech of November 6 proclaiming that the United States would adopt a "forward strategy for freedom in the Middle East." Moderate critics of the Iraq war like Fareed Zakaria praised the President's "lofty goals," while conservatives like Charles Brose in the National Review warmly embraced the President's "revolutionary" new foreign policy vision.  

But there is actually nothing new about President Bush's agenda. As he points out in his speech, it echoes the sentiments of Woodrow Wilson, FDR and Ronald Reagan. Strangely, however, there is no mention of the president whose policies provide the closest analogy to what George W. Bush is actually proposing-Jimmy Carter.

Although Bush likens his "forward strategy" to Ronald Reagan's and Harry Truman's responses to communism, the task he has set before the country is very different from containment. Despite the bellicose rhetoric of the Cold War, it soon became clear to both sides that the West had absolutely no intention of seriously undermining communism in Eastern Europe. The lack of any meaningful support (or even preparation for) the uprisings in Eastern Europe that occurred with regularity-East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland in 1980-merely confirmed that there was no stomach in Washington for direct confrontation with Moscow. Eventually this policy came to be enshrined in the infamous Sonnenfeldt Doctrine, named for the State Department First Counselor and aide to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who in December 1975 candidly revealed what had been American policy for decades, namely that "The best American strategy would be to help Soviet Russia consolidate its influence in that zone."

Saddled with the legacy of détente and unable to dispel the taint of Kissinger's Macchiavellian diplomacy, Gerald Ford lost the 1976 election to political neophyte Jimmy Carter, who rose to national prominence vowing to recapture America's moral vision.  By promising to make human rights "the heart of our foreign policy," Carter hoped to fundamentally shift international priorities toward the acknowledgment of the needs of the poor and disenfranchised around the world. Doing so, he and his advisors argued, would provide a better foundation for the long-term security of the United States than Kissinger's realpolitik. As Pat Derian, Carter's Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights put it, "the concept of human rights is a concept of world order. It is a proposal for restructuring the world so that every individual's human worth is realized, every individual's human dignity is protected." Sound familiar?

Just as Carter did, Bush has vowed that his efforts will not impose parochial American values, but rather express truly universal aspiration. Just as Carter did, Bush has tapped into that strong strand of the American psyche that defines the nation's mission in the world as the expansion of freedom. Not surprisingly, both Carter's vision of human rights and Bush's democracy doctrine are couched in overtly religious, missionary terms.

Finally, like Carter's human rights policy, Bush's democracy doctrine has the important benefit of unifying (at least temporarily) critics and supporters of the administration. It rallies supporters by identifying the "deficit" of freedom and democracy as the key problem in the Middle East. By tackling that problem, it promises Americans an end to the otherwise interminable war on terror. At the same time, it concedes a favorite argument of critics of the Iraq war by acknowledging that the West is partly to blame for this deficit. Liberals are then hooked by Bush's assertion that neither Islam nor Arab culture are incompatible with liberty and democracy.

Yet, there are also some notable differences between the Bush and Carter policies. One is the current administration's willingness to spend much more money building democracy in the Middle East than was ever contemplated for promoting human rights worldwide. For Jimmy Carter, U.S. human rights efforts were a multilateral burden, to be accompanied by a parallel effort to construct recognized international standards of human rights. This required the U.S. to act within a framework established and supported by the international community.  Bush, by contrast, seems quite willing to act first and worry about international support later. The result, predictably, is that the U.S. is also left alone to foot the bill.

Another obvious difference is the Bush administration's willingness (some might even say eagerness) to regard military force as an ancillary tool of democratization.  As the occupying power in Iraq, this leaves the U.S. with both the remarkable opportunity - and the awesome responsibility - of imposing structures and procedures that will hopefully lead to stable democracy.

It is certainly understandable that President Bush would carefully avoid any mention of Jimmy Carter or human rights. Even though Carter was ultimately successful in transforming international law and making human rights a legitimate diplomatic concern, during his presidency his efforts were widely considered a dismal failure.

Conservatives criticized Carter's unwillingness to link the abstract ideals of human rights to specific American security interests. This left the policy open to charges of inconsistency when it overlooked human rights violations by strategic allies. By contrast, the Bush administration, which began this crusade as a war on terror, has had a far easier time linking the expansion of democracy to the fight against global terrorism.

Another problem that emerged was that nations were claiming far too many rights. The initial, rather naïve notion of the Carter Administration was that human rights meant American civil rights, promoted on a global scale. This however quickly ran afoul of Third World demands that redistributive justice, social and cultural diversity and the legacy of colonialism also be treated as human rights issues. The resulting international debate so frustrated American conservatives that they shifted their allegiance from human rights to the banner of democracy. Indeed, one of the Reagan administration's first foreign policy initiatives was to scuttle Carter's original concept for the Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs and to replace with an explicit focus on democracy. It is this ideological clarity that the new Bush doctrine strives to recapture.

What lessons can we derive from the failure of Carter's human rights policy? For one thing, it is worth noting that it failed despite the rousing popularity that human rights have always enjoyed as an expression of American values, and it failed despite the support that calls for a more "moral" agenda had among political commentators of the time. While high sounding moral principles, and the idea that America has a unique destiny in fulfilling them, hold an understandable emotional appeal for most Americans, that appeal fades rapidly when there is no strategy to implement them. President Bush has yet to come up with any such a strategy for the Middle East, or even Iraq for that matter.

It might help if the President's advisors, especially those who see themselves as inheritors of the Reagan legacy, paused to remember some other Reaganauts, like Ernest W. Lefever, Reagan's first nominee to become Assistant Secretary for Human Rights, who testified before Congress that he would urge presidents to "quietly recognize the political and moral limits of promoting particular reforms in other societies." Or Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick who, in the famous November 1979 Commentary essay that brought her to Reagan's attention, wrote that democracy required "decades if not centuries" of experience with more limited forms of participation. It was definitely not a commodity for export, and the best reason to replace Carter with Reagan was precisely in order to get people into government "who understand how actual democracies come into being." 

Now that shoe is on the other foot. The last thing this country needs right now is a rehash of noble-sounding platitudes that merely serve to give the current administration a brief boost in the polls. What it does need, and most urgently, is the kind of Reaganite realism that reaffirms the value of traditional foreign alliances and recognizes that striving for the noblest goals often leads to slighting those that are achievable.


Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island and the author of The Predicament of Human Rights: The Carter and Reagan Policies (1983) and The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (1995). He served as policy advisor in the State Department under George H. W. Bush.