Sunday, February 13, 2011

Democracy as Foreign Policy Priority

Lots of credit-taking for Egypt in the US, as democracy promotion seems to have become all the rage.  The Bush folks are taking credit, saying that Iraq set the stage.  Um, just like an arsonist might take credit for new development after he burned down a city block, I guess.

Seriously, the idea that the Bush administration was promoting democracy is pretty fantastic.  As in fantasy.  After all, the initial plan (if you want to call what they were thinking a "plan") was to put Chalabi in place in Iraq.  How democratic was that?  The resort to quick elections after state-breaking (not just here but in Bosnia and other places as well) was motivated more by the desire to get out than to build representative political systems.

So when I read Peter Baker's post-mortem on the change in Egypt, I find it really strange that anyone would consider Democracy Promotion to be a Bush thing or that the Democrats under Clinton and Obama not be Democracy promoters.
President Bush, after all, made “ending tyranny in our world” the centerpiece of his second inaugural address, and, although he pursued it selectively, he considers it one of his signature legacies. The very notion of democracy promotion became so associated with him, and with the war in Iraq, that Democrats believed that it was now discredited. Never mind that Republican and Democratic presidents, from Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan, had championed liberty overseas; by the time Mr. Bush left office it had become a polarizing concept.
Um, the Peter Baker I knew in college only OD'ed on classic coca-cola so I am not sure how much he really believes what he is writing here.  I am pretty sure that the only folks who think that Democracy Promotionwas a Bush thing reside within the Beltway.  Academics and their fellow travelers were thinking about democracy for quite some time, including the whole Democracy and War debate of the 1990s. 

The big difference between the Bush-style and the Clinton/Obama style is that the former requires invasion and poor planning, whereas the latter involves diplomacy, public and private pressure, and some patience.  Did knocking off Hussein cause the Egyptian "revolution"?  Did Bush's agenda?  While outside forces matter far less than inside forces, it might have been the Obama speech in ....  Cairo that made some dent.

Again, lots of competition to take credit for this stuff, where the credit belongs almost entirely to the protesters that risked their lives and to the military folks for not shooting.  The post-Mubarak navel-gazing is inevitable, but we don't have to buy what some folks are selling.  The Bush Administration had no credibility thanks to the lack of WMD in Iraq, with even Rumsfeld's latest efforts to sell that war failing miserably.

What this crisis clearly demonstrated is that foreign policy is chock full of tradeoffs, and we cannot focus on a single priority or agenda.  They have to be balanced, with serious thought about the second and third order effects.  If there is anything that the Bush administration failed to do, it was thinking beyond simplest outcome.  Obama and his folks clearly demonstrated that one can be decisive while taking into account the complexities.

Anybody looking back at the Bush Administration can only get sick from the lost opportunities, incredibly short-sighted decisions, the refusal to see tradeoffs, and the keen ability alienate pretty much the entire world except for Tony Blair.

1 comment:

Chris C. said...

It's worth noting that the Bush administration did put their necks out on Egypt in 2005. There were definite audience costs by going public with their criticism of Mubarak and Rice's speech remains one of the best foreign policy moments of the 'aughts (compare it to the Cairo speech and it's impressive how much more honest- and I'd venture to say true to American ideals- Rice was).

Neither Obama nor Bush "won" Egypt, but Bush was willing to go public- at least for a short time period- with the concerns that were related to the seeds of Egypt's dissatisfaction while Obama was content to play with the cards he was dealt. While it's fine to criticize the Bush administration on many things, this may have been at least one place where they deserve credit for taking a difficult stand.