Why Did The Freedom Agenda Fail?

In an intriguing post yesterday discussing this article on democracy in the Middle East, Andrew Exum wrote that “one of the tragedies of the neo-conservative era (2001–2006) is that it got the ends right and the means so very, very wrong — thus discrediting the ends in both the Arabic-speaking world and in domestic U.S. politics. How the hell we Americans managed to discredit the idea of democracy promotion at home and abroad is anyone’s guess.”

It’s a question well worth asking, and one that I think neocon-in-good-standing Reuel Marc Gerecht’s item in today’s Wall Street Journal goes quite a ways toward answering, by demonstrating precisely the sort of half-read arrogance that got us here. Taking issue with President Obama’s charm offensive toward Muslims, Gerecht mounts what I think can fairly be described as a rudeness-counteroffensive, insisting that “we — the West — are the unrivaled agent of change in the Middle East.”

Modern Islamic history — including the Bush years — ought to tell us that questions non-Muslims pose can provoke healthy discussions. […]

Although it is now politically incorrect to say so, George W. Bush’s democratic rhetoric energized the discussion of representative government and human rights abroad. Democracy advocates and the anti-authoritarian voices in Arab lands have never been so hopeful as they were between 2002, when democracy promotion began to germinate within the White House, and 2006, when the administration gave up on people power in the Middle East (except in Iraq).

I don’t think it’s really “politically incorrect” to say that Bush’s democratic rhetoric energized the discussion of representative government and human rights abroad as much as it is simply dishonest not to mention that most of that discussion revolved around how incompetent and counterproductive his actual policies for doing these things were. Burning my neighbor’s house down might provoke a healthy discussion of how better to fight fires, but that doesn’t mean that setting fire to my neighbor’s house was the correct policy.


While it may be true that anti-authoritarian voices in Arab lands “have never been so hopeful as they were” between 2002 and 2006, those voices have also never been so marginalized as they have been now in the wake of Bush’s war on terror. As the New America Foundation’s Michael Cohen and Maria Figueroa Kupcu write in a new report, Revitalizing America’s Democracy Promotion, “not only has the Freedom Agenda failed to fulfill its promise, it has likely set back America’s overall democracy promotion efforts.”

The agenda was compromised by the perception that America’s rhetoric was not always matched by its actions, either at home or abroad. Meanwhile, the conflation of democracy promotion with regime change in Iraq has further undermined the U.S. effort.

By offering democratic reform as a component to the war on terror, which many in the Muslim world see — rightly or wrongly — 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 his broader agenda (“This could be your country! Who’s in?”) he discredited it even more. (Despite attempts by the war’s remaining supporters to present Iraq’s struggling, violence-plagued sort-of democracy as a beacon to the Arab world, you’d be very hard pressed to find actual Arab democrats who agree. It’s not hard to understand why.)

There was nothing particularly unique or original in neoconservatives’ critique of the Arab world’s political malaise — what was unique was neoconservatives’ insistence that the brutal application of American power was the only thing that could shake the Arab world out of that malaise. I think the results speak for themselves. And, given the fact that they saw it necessary to rebrand themselves, I think the neocons, at least the smart ones, do too.


Earlier this year, my CAP colleague Brian Katulis wrote a very good paper, Democracy Promotion in the Middle East and the Obama Administration (pdf), examining the failures of the Bush administration’s agenda and suggesting some priorities for a new U.S. approach to democracy promotion.