Posted by Suzanne Nossel
There’s an interesting debate underway at the Washington Monthly about how much credit Bush deserves for the spread of democracy in the Middle East, a topic that has raised some passions here as well. Our very own Heather Hurlburt contributed a great piece to their series.
One premise needs to be clear before embarking on this debate.
We should completely separate the question of whether the Iraq invasion was motivated by the desire to spread democracy from our evaluation of whether or not the war has had that effect.
Most of the contributors to the Monthly don't directly touch on the run-up to the war. But many of them reveal a perceptible expectation that the two sets of events will ultimately be judged together.
Nancy Soderberg, for example, tries to draw a sharp line between the policies that led up to the Iraq war and the agenda the Bush Administration is pursuing post-reelection, arguing that it is the latter that is bearing fruit. Just three months into Bush's second term, and with the signs of a policy turnabout ambiguous at best (see, e.g. the nomination of John Bolton) a diplomat as skilled and savvy as Nancy knows that its at best too early to make that case.
There seems to be an inclination to believe that if the positive developments in the Middle East are linked to Bush, this ipso facto legitimizes the war, notwithstanding the false pretenses under which it was waged. Jonathan Clarke faces up to this in his piece, writing that if it is true that raw American power percipitated democratic transformation in the Middle East:
those of us who had opposed the invasion of Iraq will feel like chumps, though we will rightly remind ourselves that the debate over whether to bomb Baghdad was always about means, not ends.
In fact, the two issues are totally separate. For anyone who is not convinced, Kevin Drum offers clear statements by Bush’s top aides making clear that the justifications for the war were manifold, but had little to do with spreading freedom.
Bush turned to the rhetoric of democracy promotion only once all other rationales for the Iraq action had disintegrated. By the end of 2004 the immediacy and terror of 9/11 had also begun to fade, requiring that Bush pivot away from his appeal to fear and offer a more uplifting foreign policy message. The spread of democracy fit the bill perfectly, and so Bush forcefully appropriated a set of ideas that traditionally belonged to progressives.
One element (its by no means the only element, though it is the only one I'll deal with tonight) progressives hesitation to link the steps forward in the region and U.S. action in Iraq is an understandable fear that doing so will validate the way Bush went to war. We don’t want to ratify unilateral action, the alienation of allies and foreign populations, reliance on spurious intelligence, deception, or poor planning.
We suspect that if Bush is credited with progress in the Middle East, the misdeeds that seem to have already been forgiven by the American public (note the remarkable contrast to the political weight still accorded to issues like truthfulness en route to Iraq in Britain) may wind up offering a template for future foreign misadventures.
That Iraqis may ultimately be better off for being rid of Saddam Hussein and even on its way to democracy does not excuse the betrayal of the trust leading into the Iraq War or the fact that American lives were sacrificed under misleading pretenses. The spread of democracy elsewhere in the region will likewise do nothing to redeem this betrayal. There is nothing inconsistent about cheering the emergence of a more accountable and legitimate government in Iraq, and decrying the erosion of accountability and legitimacy back home.
The counter-argument, of course, is that even though the American public should separate these things, they won't. Bush's shenanigans in building the case for war barely moved the needle in the 2004 elections. There's something very American in the bland, unpenetrating optimism of an "all's well that ends well" outlook.
The only way this distinction will be preserved and that in the public mind is to link Bush's duplicity, high-handedness, and crisis of delivery in Iraq to a much larger pattern of behavior, one that cuts across Cherif Bassiouni, Tom DeLay, the nuclear option, John Bolton, and PBS, just to list out a few of this week's outrages. It will be up to progressives to draw that link persuasively.
More on these important topics later in the week.