Peter Baker, the excellent New York Times reporter, wrote an interesting Week in Review piece yesterday contrasting President Bush’s effort at promoting democracy with that of President Obama, who has said nary a word in defense of it and whose administration seems to be downplaying human rights as a centerpiece of American foreign policy (see Hillary Clinton’s remarks in China). But Baker makes one claim that in my judgment is clearly wrong, if widely accepted:
The Middle East, of course, is what led Mr. Bush down this road [democracy promotion] in the first place. After the invasion of Iraq failed to turn up any weapons of mass destruction, he embraced the goal of building democracy there as an outpost for freedom in a repressive region.
In fact, Bush repeatedly articulated his freedom agenda before the Iraq war began. The evidence can be found in many places, including in three prominent pre-war speeches: the 2002 State of the Union address, the June 24, 2002 speech on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and the president’s February 27, 2003 address to the American Enterprise Institute, in which he said this:
There was a time when many said that the cultures of Japan and Germany were incapable of sustaining democratic values. Well, they were wrong. Some say the same of Iraq today. They are mistaken. The nation of Iraq — with its proud heritage, abundant resources and skilled and educated people — is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom. The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder. They encourage the peaceful pursuit of a better life. And there are hopeful signs of a desire for freedom in the Middle East. Arab intellectuals have called on Arab governments to address the “freedom gap” so their peoples can fully share in the progress of our times. Leaders in the region speak of a new Arab charter that champions internal reform, greater political participation, economic openness, and free trade. And from Morocco to Bahrain and beyond, nations are taking genuine steps toward politics reform. 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.
So the argument that advocating democracy was for President Bush a post-war justification is simply not correct.
On the larger matter of whether events in Iraq have discredited the cause of advocating liberty abroad: they have not. We have learned vital lessons from our experience in Iraq, from the supreme importance of having reliable intelligence, to the need of having the right invasion/counterinsurgency strategy in place when fighting a war of this kind, to the value of having a president who is determined and courageous enough to pursue a change in strategy, even when it comes very late in the day, etc.
But what Iraq has not done is discredit democracy. Iraq’s government is vastly preferable to that of almost every other regional regime, from Iran to Syria to Saudi Arabia. Iraq is now an ally instead of an enemy of America, the birthplace of the Sunni rise against militant Islam, and a nation that does not threaten its neighbors. While its experiment in self-government is still young, fragile, and reversible, what we have seen in Iraq remains stirring. The most recent provincial elections were extremely heartening, and there is reason to believe that, over time, the events in Iraq might even reshape the political culture in the Middle East .
We can all agree that democracy can’t be pursued everywhere, all at once. It’s also true that the Iraqi elections did not, by themselves, put an end to the violence in Iraq. What was needed, and for years what was missing, was the basic security and order that would allow the institutions of liberty to take root. The ever wise political scientist James Q. Wilson cautioned in 2005 that it takes a long time to convert a nation accustomed to authoritarian rule — and Saddam Hussein’s regime was much more malignant than run-of-the-mill authoritarianism — into one that embraces democratic rule. A rapid transition, he wrote, has never been possible and ought not to be expected.
It seems that for many people, the mistakes made in Iraq in the aftermath of 2003 permanently tainted their views of that nation; it is as if they decided the war was wrong and the effort to transform it into a functioning democracy was a mistake, come what may. Fortunately the Iraqi people have, with the support and skill of the American military, carried on; they have continued with the difficult task of self-government. Given all they have suffered through, what Iraqis have achieved is fairly extraordinary, and even heroic. And with the passage of time, Iraq may well demonstrate to the world all over again that freedom is still the best path to human flourishing and the cause of peace. Championing freedom and human rights isn’t easy, but it remains a noble cause. Those who want to make the opposite case — who want to argue on behalf of the benefits of authoritarianism, dictatorships, and tyranny, or why we should be indifferent to them — are free to do so. My hope and expectation is that America will, in the main, remain on the side of liberty. That is, after all, right where she belongs.