Commentary Magazine


Rumsfeld vs. Me on the Freedom Agenda

In his interview with Hugh Hewitt yesterday, former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked how much the desire to spread democracy in the Arab world was on President Bush’s mind before the Iraq war began versus how much of that was a “make good” when weapons of mass destruction weren’t found.

Rumsfeld responded by saying: “That’s hard to answer. I don’t recall the idea of bringing democracy to Iraq as being part of the discussions in the National Security Council during the period with a build-up towards the conflict with Iraq.” He went on to say, “It is, as you suggest, that those words tended to become more prominent after the war had — major combat operations had been completed, and the subject of WMD had not been found in the kinds of supplies that had been anticipated, although there were certainly people capable of that.” When pressed by Hewitt on whether he recalled his deputy Paul Wolfowitz making the democracy argument, Rumsfeld says, “I don’t, and I don’t recall the president doing it, or Secretary Powell.”

This argument is a somewhat gentler version of one often made by those on the left who say that the so-called Freedom Agenda was a postwar casus belli invoked to rationalize a conflict whose justification (WMDs) had crumbled.

I can’t testify to the NSC meetings Rumsfeld attended. But I do know that President Bush made several significant prewar speeches in which he articulated the Freedom Agenda, such as this one on February 27, 2003, where he said,

A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region. It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world — or the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim — is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life. Human cultures can be vastly different. Yet the human heart desires the same good things, everywhere on Earth. In our desire to be safe from brutal and bullying oppression, human beings are the same. In our desire to care for our children and give them a better life, we are the same. For these fundamental reasons, freedom and democracy will always and everywhere have greater appeal than the slogans of hatred and the tactics of terror.

In fact, President Bush was talking about the Freedom Agenda as early as his January 29, 2002, State of the Union address, delivered months after the Afghanistan war had begun and more than a year before the Iraq war. He spoke about it during his June 1, 2002, commencement address at West Point. And he spoke about it during his June 24, 2002, Rose Garden speech, with Donald Rumsfeld standing by his side.

Indeed, on July 9, 2002, I sent an e-mail to my distribution list in which I spoke about the Rose Garden speech as being “part of a current of thought. There is a moral and intellectual thread that runs through the President’s policies.” I went on to write that “in advocating human rights and standing up for human dignity, the President has not simply enunciated an appealing but abstract doctrine; he has made it manifest in the real world. … Nobody thinks this task will be quick or easy. We are dealing with a region where democracy has not yet taken root. But the trajectory of events is clear enough. The guideposts are in place. The President is willing to use American power and influence to advance universal ideals.” A month later, Michael Gerson, then the president’s chief speechwriter, and I agreed that Bush’s September 12, 2002, speech to the United Nations should be devoted to this topic. (The president vetoed this idea and chose a different, wiser approach.)

Is all that talk about promoting liberty in the Arab Middle East news to Secretary Rumsfeld? Whether or not it is — whether or not Secretary Rumsfeld has forgotten his role in reviewing those speeches during the staffing process — the Freedom Agenda was not some postwar invention. And while it was not the main cause for going to war with Iraq — the belief that Saddam possessed WMDs was — spreading democracy to the Arab world was certainly a factor in the thinking of the president and his senior aides. The wisdom of this is debatable; but that this was the case is not.