Commentary Magazine


Topic: freedom

George W. Bush and the Freedom Agenda

President Bush returned to Washington earlier this week to mark the opening of the “Freedom Collection” at the Bush Institute in Dallas. At the event, President Bush gave a speech that was turned into an op-ed  for the Wall Street Journal that’s worth reading.

President Bush offered a sophisticated critique of (among other things) the so-called Arab Spring. “The collapse of an old order can unleash resentments and power struggles that a new order is not yet prepared to handle,” the former president said. Years of transition can be difficult. He acknowledged that there is nothing easy about the achievement of freedom. But Bush pointed out that there is an inbuilt crisis in tyrannies, which is that they are illegitimate and, eventually, citizens rise up against them. Regardless of their culture, people don’t want to be subject to repression, violence, and the lash of the whip.

Egypt is a good example. Whatever one thinks about the short, medium, and long-term prospects there – and there are certainly reasons for concern —  the revolution itself was organic. America didn’t provoke the uprising and, until the 11th hour, we stood with Hosni Mubarak. We were essentially bystanders to events there. Mubarak did not take the necessary steps for reform and liberation when he could  — and in the end, he was consumed by the resentments and hatreds he helped to create.

Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, then, tectonic plates are shifting, whether we like it or not. What does that mean for American policy? Read More

President Bush returned to Washington earlier this week to mark the opening of the “Freedom Collection” at the Bush Institute in Dallas. At the event, President Bush gave a speech that was turned into an op-ed  for the Wall Street Journal that’s worth reading.

President Bush offered a sophisticated critique of (among other things) the so-called Arab Spring. “The collapse of an old order can unleash resentments and power struggles that a new order is not yet prepared to handle,” the former president said. Years of transition can be difficult. He acknowledged that there is nothing easy about the achievement of freedom. But Bush pointed out that there is an inbuilt crisis in tyrannies, which is that they are illegitimate and, eventually, citizens rise up against them. Regardless of their culture, people don’t want to be subject to repression, violence, and the lash of the whip.

Egypt is a good example. Whatever one thinks about the short, medium, and long-term prospects there – and there are certainly reasons for concern —  the revolution itself was organic. America didn’t provoke the uprising and, until the 11th hour, we stood with Hosni Mubarak. We were essentially bystanders to events there. Mubarak did not take the necessary steps for reform and liberation when he could  — and in the end, he was consumed by the resentments and hatreds he helped to create.

Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, then, tectonic plates are shifting, whether we like it or not. What does that mean for American policy?

According to America’s 43rd president:

As Americans, our goal should be to help reformers turn the end of tyranny into durable, accountable civic structures. Emerging democracies need strong constitutions, political parties committed to pluralism, and free elections. Free societies depend upon the rule of law and property rights, and they require hopeful economies, drawn into open world markets.

This work will require patience, creativity and active American leadership. It will involve the strengthening of civil society—with a particular emphasis on the role of women. It will require a consistent defense of religious liberty. It will mean the encouragement of development, education and health, as well as trade and foreign investment. There will certainly be setbacks. But if America does not support the advance of democratic institutions and values, who will?

It’s important to bear in mind that the United States’ transition to freedom was hardly smooth. Nearly a century after our liberation from Great Britain we fought what the historian Daniel J. Boorstin called “probably the bloodiest civil war of the 19th century and perhaps even of all modern history.” It was, he said, “the great trauma of our national life.” With the Civil War on our record, we might want to show a bit of patience toward those who are emerging from broken and pathologized societies.

To be clear: the overthrow of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes does not always end well. One form of tyranny can give way to another. As Bush said in his speech, “Freedom is a powerful force.  But it does not advance on wheels of historical inevitability. And it is history that proves this point. The American Revolution of 1776 produced George Washington, who embodied the democratic habits of a new nation. The French Revolution of 1789 eventually produced Napoleon, who set out to conquer Europe. The outcome of a freedom revolution is determined by human choices and the creation of durable democratic traditions.”

To return to the here and now: Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafi could be much worse than Egypt under Mubarak. But the revolution came. We couldn’t have stopped it even if we wanted to. The pertinent question is whether the United States has either the interest or the capacity to help shape the outcome there and elsewhere in the Muslim world in ways that strengthen civil society and advance genuine human liberty; in ways that bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice, one might say.

Once upon a time, the United States had a president – several presidents, in fact – who cared about such things. Today, it’s not at all clear that we do.

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Freedom in Post-Democratic Europe

If America must shoulder the burden of global security because others will not or cannot, America also shoulders the burden of a global idealism always present, if dormant, that is now–20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union–again rearing its head on a massive scale throughout the Arab world (and in Iran and to some extent, Russia). Today, Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt wonders aloud why President Obama has remained so dismissive toward the outward expression of freedom for its own sake. Hiatt guesses that it’s a kind of post-nationalism:

But his stance also reflects his own brand of idealism, which values international law and alliances more than the promotion of freedom. The democrats’ uprising in Iran threatened his hopes of negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran’s rulers. Aid to Syria’s democrats requires approval from the UN Security Council, which is unattainable without Russian and Chinese acquiescence.

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If America must shoulder the burden of global security because others will not or cannot, America also shoulders the burden of a global idealism always present, if dormant, that is now–20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union–again rearing its head on a massive scale throughout the Arab world (and in Iran and to some extent, Russia). Today, Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt wonders aloud why President Obama has remained so dismissive toward the outward expression of freedom for its own sake. Hiatt guesses that it’s a kind of post-nationalism:

But his stance also reflects his own brand of idealism, which values international law and alliances more than the promotion of freedom. The democrats’ uprising in Iran threatened his hopes of negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran’s rulers. Aid to Syria’s democrats requires approval from the UN Security Council, which is unattainable without Russian and Chinese acquiescence.

Hiatt thinks Obama sorely and mistakenly undervalues the practical uses of the so-called freedom agenda, to the detriment of his own stated policy goals. But there is another relevant facet to this debate. The trend in the rest of the West, notably Europe, is away from democracy. Who, then, will proclaim the virtues of freedom and self-rule if we don’t? The answer is: no one.

Daniel Hannan, writing in the magazine Standpoint, noted that the European Union is, on its face, manifestly undemocratic, as more and more of the continent’s policy is made by unelected committees, whose members are appointed by other unelected committees, in Brussels. The euro is the symbol of this union, and the union’s most powerful and influential state (though we have now begun using the term “state” loosely), within and probably without, is Germany. So what happens when you ask the most obvious question to the most relevant official? When you ask German Chancellor Angela Merkel why the euro should not be dissolved, what does she say? Hannan quotes her response:

Nobody should take for granted another 50 years of peace and prosperity in Europe, and that’s why I say, if the euro fails, Europe fails. We have a historical obligation: to protect by all means Europe’s unification process begun by our forefathers after centuries of hatred and bloodshed.

Hannan adds: “Put in those terms, of course, the issue is literally beyond argument. If you oppose the euro, Mrs Merkel suggests, you’re in favour of war.” Eurocrats are shown the door when they even glance at the hoi polloi. Hannan notes what happened when Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou proposed a referendum on the bailout package offered his country by Europe. Less than a week later, Papandreou had been forced out of office. Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian premier and no euroskeptic himself, expressed his ambivalence toward his country staying in the euro. At an EU summit, an official boasted they were about to be rid of Berlusconi. That was a promise, not a threat; five days later the deed was done.

Hannan then upends the conventional wisdom of the European Union:

People sometimes talk of the EU’s democratic deficit as if it were accidental. In fact, it is essential to the whole design. Having lived through the 1920s and 1930s, the founders had little faith in democracy — especially the plebiscitary democracy which they saw as a prelude to demagoguery and fascism. They were therefore unapologetic about vesting supreme power in the hands of appointed commissioners who were to be invulnerable to public opinion. They were disarmingly honest, too, about the fact that their dream of common European statehood would never be realised if successive transfers of power to Brussels had to be approved by the national electorates.

The euro was the culmination of their scheme.

The democracy deficit–in this case forcing the single-currency suicide pact on disapproving commoners–has led to increasing actual deficits. Those financial debts, in turn, have a corrosive effect on freedom abroad. For example, as Justin Vaïsse wrote in February, European governments promised “money, markets access, mobility” to emerging Arab states, especially Tunisia and Libya, during the Arab Spring. But the debt crisis at home resulted in modest, and disappointing, results–just as those countries needed it the most.

But more than cash, and certainly more than immigration opportunities, the awakening human spirit needs an atlas of ideas. Those North African countries may look across the Mediterranean and wonder what all the fuss is about. Where will the inspiration come from? Not Europe, which sticks its fingers in its ears when it hears the noise of the people. And certainly not the leader of the pack–Germany–slow to act against Iranian bank interests and offering diplomatic support to Vladimir Putin, a fraud and a thug who requests, and receives, Germany’s acquiescence in preventing the further enlargement of NATO, whose raison d’être is explicitly tied to promoting and protecting democracy.

No doubt Hiatt’s column will be derided by those on the left who delight in sounding the alarm of a creeping conservatism on the Post’s editorial page (if only!), and by those enlightened observers who scoff at the caveman barbarism of nationalism and identity. But if Europe’s leaders are indeed ready to put their experiment in democracy behind them, there will be one nation, and one office, left to carry the banner. As president of the United States, this is Barack Obama’s mission, whether or not he chooses to accept it.

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