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August 21, 2007

Bush: A 'Dissident' in His Own Government?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I feel like I have an obligation to comment on Peter Baker’s Washington Post piece on why/how the Bush administration’s efforts to promote Middle East democracy failed miserably. It was one of the most frustrating, dispiriting reads I’ve read in a long time (Laura Rozen was similarly dissapointed). Some thoughts:

1. At best, the article's interesting in the kind of way a car crash is interesting ("car crash" refers to the Bush administration, not Baker's writing style). At worst, it's quite bad and incredibly misleading. President Bush comes out as a courageous visionary whose wonderful ideas were stilted by the State Department bureaucracy and by the government’s traditional resistance to new ideas (Poor George, he says he feels like a "dissident" within his own administration). What’s funny is that the State Department comes across as being separate than the Executive Branch, as if it was founded for no other reason than to defeat any good ideas that come out of the White House.

What’s strange, though, is that nothing of note or interest is said about Condoleezza Rice, who comes off as periphery player. She’s mentioned a few times, but only in passing, and only, it seems, so that Baker can continue with his narrative. However, over the course of 3000 words, we learn nothing about what Condi thinks about her rebellious bureaucracy. Presumably, as head of the State Department and invested with the authority granted to her by the President of the United States, she could have done something about this. It’s doubly amazing that Rice is more or less ignored by Baker, since she was central in articulating a foreign policy orientation known as “constructive instability” (a radical way of looking at the world that, while scary, isn’t altogether bad. For a primer on CI, see here and here).

2. Wait a second, wasn’t the State Department against another “new idea” in 2002? I seem to recall that there was some talk around then of invading a foreign country that had nothing to do with 9/11. I seem to also recall that the State Department bureaucracy was furious about this. President Bush was able, however, to overrule or circumvent this “resistance” because he wanted to. Iraq was his priority. I don’t doubt that Bush is sincere in his commitment to democracy, but I’m under no illusions that it was ever a top priority of his, or that it took precedence over more “tangible” strategic interests…like, um, supporting dictators with billions of dollars, something which Bush has proven quite fond of.

3. Wait, didn’t the Bush administration just announce a $20 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia, one of the most undemocratic countries on the planet? Presumably, a change in policy like that has to get the approval of the President. Or can the dreaded State Department bureaucracy overrule the President?

4. Unbelievably, Iraq gets only one mention in the whole article. This is absolutely amazing.      More to say about this, but I’ll save it for another post. Suffice it to say that Baker deserves an “understatement of the last six months” award for this unassuming nugget: “The Iraq war has distracted Bush and, in some quarters, discredited his aspirations.” Oh really?

5. If only one good thing can come out of this article, I hope it is that someone in the White House will read it and then decide to demote Richard Boucher (read the article and you'll see why...if you like indulging dictators, though, you'll think he's a star).


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The Dissident-in-Chief? That's a depressing thought if one takes it literally. I'm not sure we can quite do that with the Baker piece.

Not once does Baker engage at first hand with anyone who thought emphasizing worldwide democracy and an end to tyranny was foolish, impractical, or a policy borne of the need to have a couple of quotable lines in a State of the Union speech. It looks as if he was spinning his reporting Bush's way, because he agreed with the messianic globalo...with the universal democracy promotion (or UDP) idea, and his White House (and former White House)sources took advantage of that. Bush is the hero, thwarted by champions of realism and inertia that Baker keeps at a safe distance by not interviewing them directly.

The picture thus painted is implausible, but this is not fundamentally a matter of Bush's sincerity. He really does wish for democracy in places like Egypt and Russia, in somewhat the same way I wish for a Braves rotation that didn't fall apart after Smoltz and Hudson. I'm completely sincere in my wish, but since it doesn't affect me personally and I have no idea how to make my wish come true I don't do anyting about it.

There are ways to move the foreign policy bureaucracy in a President's preferred direction. Truman's was one; he appointed a Secretary of State in whom he had complete trust and made every foreign policy move through him. Nixon's was another; he bypassed the bureaucracy, cutting the State Department out of all matters and especially all negotiations he thought important and running foreign policy through the Security Adviser's office. Reagan's was a third; he bided his time until direct meetings with Gorbachev and his own great popularity gave him the opportunity to move arms control discussions with the Soviets further and faster than most of his advisers were comfortable with.

All of these have their disadvantages, but under the right circumstances they can and did work. When Bush tried his hand at this he read some lines inserted into random speeches by a small group of pasty-faced, snotnosed speechwriters and expected policy to change as a result. That used to work on the old "West Wing" television show; it's never worked in real life.

Are you serious? Richard Boucher is one of the most urbane, thoughtful, articulate, staggeringly well-informed Renaissance men in Washington. It's entirely likely the man forgot more foreign policy than Bush will ever know. I'll bet you a thousand bucks Bush couldn't ID on a map the 130+ countries Boucher has visited without Condoleeza Rice passing him a cheat sheet.

If the United States electorate were more European, Boucher is the kind of man we'd elect president. Can you even imagine what a Boucher/Bush debate would look like in the primaries? OMFG, bloodbath!! There's not a politician alive whom he couldn't make mincemeat of.

If Boucher really is running our foreign policy these days? Hip hip hooray, three-cheers-and-a-double-backflip, and more power to him.

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