Three years ago this week, George W. Bush delivered his second inaugural address — a speech containing the purest distillation of his worldview ever set to words.
“For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny — prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder — violence will gather,” the U.S. President declared. “There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom … The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands … America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.”
What the President set out on January 20, 2005 was not the famous “Bush doctrine,” which pledged that America would take the military initiative against terrorist groups and the regimes that sponsor them. Rather, it was something even more important. The president’s faith in liberty as the be-all and end-all of human aspiration convinced him that it didn’t really matter what the world thought about America throwing around its weight — because when the time came, Americans would be welcomed by oppressed Muslims yearning to breathe free. Even God would smile on the enterprise: “The desire for liberty is universal,” the President later declared, “because it is written by our Creator into the hearts of every man, woman, and child on the Earth.”
Bush’s soaring, ennobling vision of human emancipation — his “Freedom Doctrine,” let us call it — was extraordinarily effective at rallying Americans to war following 9/11. With America safer, and invaded nations freer, it was imagined that the wars waged under the Freedom Doctrine banner would have no losers — except the tyrants and terrorists they targeted. At the same time, America’s interests and beliefs would become “one,” thereby putting an end to the cynicism of foreign-policy realism. Out of the ashes of 9/11 would spring a born-again nation committed to no less an “ultimate goal” than “ending tyranny in our world.”
It is an intoxicating vision, and I know plenty of conservative pundits who remain drunk on it still. But the truth is that the Freedom Doctrine has been falsified many times over. Afghanistan remains a broken country, with parts of it still under Taliban control six years after Kabul was taken by American forces. Notwithstanding the hard work being done by NATO soldiers, it turns out that few ordinary Afghan villagers care about democracy — which is a foreign concept they know little about, and has no basis in the region’s vicious tribal culture.
In Iraq, likewise, it turns out that the freedom yearned for most keenly was the freedom to butcher one’s neighbour. Meanwhile, in the Palestinian Authority, the smaller Gulf states, Egypt and Lebanon, many Arabs have used whatever nominal voting power they’ve been granted to mark the ballot for hard-core Islamists who have the Koran, not any Western concept of “liberty,” written into their hearts. And then there’s Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, where the United States is propping up useful dictators, and which have stood as monuments to the hypocrisy and other-worldliness of the Freedom-Doctrine from the beginning.
Why did the Freedom Doctrine fail? The best explanation I’ve seen appeared recently in a recently published essay by an American scholar named Daniel J. Mahoney.
In “Conservatism, Democracy, and Foreign Policy,” the Assumption College professor begins by distinguishing post-9/11 “neo-conservatism” from its Cold War variant. Unlike Bush’s neo-neo variant, he argues, the neo-cons of the Soviet era “had been more anti-totalitarian than ‘democratic’ in orientation, and [were] perfectly willing to acknowledge the sheer intractability of cultures and civilizations.”
That is to say, old-school neo-conservatives did not insist on Western democracy as a model for everyone. Like the U.S. military commanders who’ve recently begun to work with Sunni tribes in Iraq’s Anbar province, they realized that the best way to detoxify societies was sometimes to work through their traditional power structures — structures that Westerners find Medieval, misogynistic and repressive, but which are accepted as legitimate by the people who count.
The neo-neo-cons, by contrast, are essentially utopians whose obsession with the single template of democratic liberalism exemplifies what Francis Fukuyama called “the end of history,” and what Marxist philosopher Alexandre Kojčve called “the universal and homogenous state.” In this sense, neo-neo-Conservatism isn’t really conservative at all, but in fact has much in common with the grandiose -isms of the early 20th century.
In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the result of America’s “democratic monomania” (Mahoney’s term) has been a fixation on writing Constitutions, organizing elections and propping up flimsy Presidents. Washington’s hope was these trappings would serve to transform the underlying societies by bringing out the citizens’ innate, though long-suppressed, love of Western-style democracy. But as both examples demonstrated, elections accomplish little when they are grafted on to societies that lack the basic building blocks of democracy — due process, pluralism, the rule of law, and separation of church and state.
Mahoney does not denounce Bush as stupid or corrupt, as many critics do. Rather, he presents the U.S. President as a well-meaning moralist who became captured by a simplistic vision of the human soul. On the President’s teleprompter, the desire for liberty is everything. In real life, it competes with many other darker impulses — from tribalism to religious fervor to the prosecution of historical grievances.
A love of liberty is a wonderful thing in a politician. But in Bush’s case, one wishes he’d leavened it with humility. The same critique applies to those pundits, such as me, who became so intoxicated by his rhetoric.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here