Chris Matthews Gets It Wrong

Chris Matthews has hosted Hardball on MSNBC since 1999, so he’s technically been covering the news for the entirety of the George W. Bush presidency.  Yet his immediate reaction to President Bush’s farewell address last night left me wondering whether – in between his grouchy rants against the Bush administration – he’s ever bothered paying attention.  While denouncing Bush’s Middle East “freedom agenda,” Matthews struggled to provide accurate examples of the administration’s supposed failures (h/t Freedom Eden):

… History would have told him that in the Arab world, it’s the Arab street, it’s the regular people out there, the vast population in numbers, who oppose the state of Israel, who have always been radicalized. …

And so the head scratching begins.  Does Matthews really think that the current Bush administration tried to promote democracy in Algeria?  Maybe he should read this congratulatory statement, which Bush sent to Abdelaziz Bouteflika after the Algerian leader won a very undemocratic 85% of the vote in 2004.  On Iran, is Matthews unaware that Ahmadinejad’s election had nothing to do with the “democracy agenda” – and that presidential elections have occurred in Iran since 1989?  Or, on a more basic level, does Matthews really think that the “Arab street” (an analytically vacuous concept to begin with) is of any political consequence in non-Arab Iran?

Of course, Matthews finally gets something right when he notes that the Bush administration pushed for the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections and, in turn, got Hamas.  Yet Matthews’s sound bite obscures the Bush administration’s actual sin in this affair – namely, failing to reinforce its 2002 demand that the Palestinians elect leaders “not compromised by terror.”

As a result, Matthews fails to recognize the Bush administration’s real foreign policy shortcoming: not that it promoted democracy naively, but that it promoted democracy inconsistently and – at times – half-heartedly.  Yes, the administration demonstrated a very substantial commitment to democracy in Iraq – and history has not reached a unanimous verdict on this project yet.  But in Egypt, the administration abandoned its landmark call for democracy, sitting idly by as the most prominent opposition candidate was jailed following false elections; in the Levant, the administration retreated from its multilateral effort to evict Syria from Lebanon, ultimately endorsing a treaty that strengthened Damascus’s position in Beirut; and throughout the Gulf, the administration strengthened its ties to oil-dripping despots.

In turn, perhaps the Bush administration’s real downfall is that it has discredited the “democracy agenda” by compromising and mitigating its efforts on that front so often.  In the United States, we are unlikely to feel the immediate consequences: the Obama administration will probably embrace “power politics,” thus returning to the framework that has guided American foreign policy historically.  But in the Middle East, the consequences will be tragic – particularly for liberals, who spent much of the past eight years working for change, only to expose themselves to greater repression when American support was not forthcoming.