Jackson Diehl works very hard to find something good about George W. Bush’s foreign policy legacy, and he comes up with this:
There is, however, one important way in which the president has been faithful to his cause — and one practice he has pioneered that ought to outlast him. Throughout the past several years, Bush has gone out of his way to meet personally with advocates for democratic change around the world — especially those under pressure from their governments. He has invited them to the White House and has looked for them in their own countries. Last year, in Prague, he even attended a conference of dissidents from all over the world.
Diehl’s account of Bush’s freedom agenda is essentially this: “Bush pushed for freedom, autocrats pushed back,” as if Bush gave it the old college try, but in the end was defeated by the mean old world. This is nonsense. The problem is that Bush’s freedom agenda was nested within a broader set of policies — the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq — that was fundamentally inimical to genuine democratic reform, and indeed has proven disastrous for the actual promotion of democracy, especially in the Middle East.
By offering democratic reform as a component to the war on terror, which many in the Muslim world see as a war against Islam, Bush alienated at the outset scores of potential reformist allies. By then promoting the war in Iraq as a showpiece for that agenda (“This could be your country! Who’s in?”) he discredited it even more.
Many praised President Bush’s soaring — at least on the page — freedom rhetoric, but did it help or hinder the cause of freedom for Bush to condemn authoritarian regimes like Syria at the same time that he was rendering suspects there to be tortured?
It’s a rather huge oversight for Diehl to ignore all of this in his account of the failure of Bush’s freedom agenda. Yes, it’s great that Bush took time out of his busy schedule to have coffee with some democratic activists. It’s important to show that the United States supports their work. It’s also important that the United States not pursue policies that make their work harder.