Cynicism, Backsliding, And Middle East Policy

bush flagResponding to this post, Michael Rubin criticizes me for criticizing him “for omitting Bush in my criticism of Obama’s tendency to engage dictators.”

Matt may not be aware that I often criticized the Bush administration for the same (here, for example). It makes sense to criticize President Obama now because, frankly, Obama is commander-in-chief and calls the shots.

To be fair, my comment was directed at Rubin’s lament about Obama administration officials and U.S. congressmen having their photos taken with Kurdish president Masud Barzani, which I found funny because a quick search revealed numerous photos of Bush and Barzani. But I take Michael’s point: Bush did, in fact, engage with dictators, and Rubin did, on occasion, criticize him for it, and now it’s Obama’s turn.

Michael follows up with this zinger:

I realize that Center for American Progress is not allowed outside of its partisan straitjacket, but it does our broader national-security strategy harm when advocacy is based on politics rather than policy.

Ouch, good one! But wait, here’s what I wrote in my post:

I don’t disagree with Michael here on the Obama administration’s lack of follow-through on the promise of the Cairo speech, which I’ve found deeply disappointing, or with his [Michael’s] concern about the increasing oppression in Iraqi Kurdistan. Nor do I disagree that cuddling up to dictators encourages cynicism and anti-Americanism (though isn’t it interesting how conservatives can make such claims without being accused of “blaming America”?)

Of course, later in the day Rahm Emanuel showed up and severely beat me for writing that. (Just as he beat my colleague Brian Katulis after Brian signed this bipartisan letter calling on the administration to pressure Egypt to clean up its act on human rights and democracy.)

As to the more substantive point of democracy “backsliding” in the Middle East, Michael takes issue with my citation of a recent RAND study of the negative consequences of the Iraq war, writing that “it should be remembered that RAND studies are the products of their authors rather than the end-all and be-all of debate”:

Indeed, many lead authors at RAND make the evidence fit their political conclusions rather than vice versa. (Anyone who has ever heard James Dobbins speaking loudly on his cell phone to journalists while in the Dulles Airport Red Carpet Club knows that.) During the Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Clinton administrations, there was very little progress, let alone effort, in the realm of Middle East democracy. It became a priority after 9/11 for reasons argued by Natan Sharansky. The backsliding during Bush’s second term, which has been embraced by Obama, had more to do with a decision in the White House to take the path of least resistance and let the State Department lead rather than follow policy.

True, no single study is is ever “the end-all and be-all of debate,” which is why I also cited a Freedom House report, released just as Bush was leaving office, that noted that global freedom was in decline. Michael can cast aspersions on RAND’s (highly respected) work all he wants — or, better yet, he could actually put up something he thinks they got wrong — but the fact is that numerous other studies have shown almost precisely the same thing: Rather than demonstrating the extent of American power and promoting freedom, the Bush administration’s aggressive Middle East policy succeeded mainly in demonstrating the limits of that power, diminishing American influence and harming the cause of political reform.

Now, one could look at this evidence and conclude, as I and many others have, that the various theories that animated the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and its broader Middle East policy (Sharansky’s book of banal aphorisms about freedom, while perfectly pitched for a C-student like Bush, wasn’t published until 2004, by the way) were enormously stupid and counterproductive, and that Bush’s second-term second term shift, rather than being some sort of capitulation to that neocon bete noir, the State Department, was part of an unfortunately necessary effort to contain the fallout from the failure of those theories.

Or, you could do what I think Michael does, which is argue that Bush simply lost his nerve in the face of bureaucratic resistance, echoing the old Communist line that Communism hadn’t really failed, because true Communism had just never been tried.

Again, I agree with Michael that cutting deals with dictatorial regimes contributes to cynicism and anti-Americanism. I also recognize, as does President Obama, that such deals are sometimes necessary to serve to larger goal of American security. I would ask Michael, though, what he thinks makes people more cynical about America: Recognizing that we need to deal with unsavory regimes sometimes, and then trying to deal with those regimes, as Obama has done? Or doing what Bush did, deliver a lot of high-flying speeches against tyranny, while at the same time delivering people to those same tyrants to be interrogated and tortured?