The National Interest, September 16, 2008
This article was first published by The National Interest.
By Amy Zegart
IT’S LEGACY time. As the Bush administration winds down, the race is on to shape how future generations will view the past eight years. The president himself seems keenly aware of the clock, declaring his intention to grab that most elusive brass ring, peace in the Middle East, before he leaves office. Former officials are not waiting that long, publishing memoirs about the Bush years before the Bush years are over. Former CIA chief George Tenet, top Justice Department official Jack Goldsmith, Pentagon policy chief Douglas Feith and White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan have all penned best-selling insider accounts in the past year. While some kiss and tell more than others, all seek to cast old events in a new light. Setting the record straight has become the most important and popular game in town.
So just what will the Bush foreign-policy legacy be? Over the past several months, I have put this question to more than a dozen leading academics and senior foreign-policy officials from the past three presidential administrations. What I found was surprising. Although the harsh judgments of Bush’s performance will most likely endure, so too will his grandest foreign-policy idea: that democratizing the Middle East is the best way to combat the root causes of terrorism and the surest road to peace. For all the criticism of Bush’s foreign policy, both John McCain (R-AZ and Barack Obama (D-IL) embrace the president’s “freedom agenda.” America’s forty-third president may go down as one of the most criticized in American history, but his grand strategy will undoubtedly set the course of American foreign policy for the next administration, and possibly the next generation.
ALMOST NOBODY thinks the president is doing a good job. Bush continues to set public-opinion records—the bad kind. He has received the highest public-disapproval rating ever recorded by Gallup in its seventy-year history. He holds the second-worst approval rating ever (even lower than Richard Nixon’s just before he resigned over the Watergate scandal). And 63 percent of Americans consider the Iraq War to be a “mistake.” That’s the highest recorded opposition to an active war in American history—and a full two points higher than peak opposition to the Vietnam War in May of 1971.
The current prevailing wisdom, expressed publicly by many Democrats and privately by many Republicans, is that democratizing Iraq and the rest of the Middle East is a costly long shot that has done great harm to America’s standing and security in the world. William J. Perry, President Clinton’s secretary of defense, told me, “I think they’ll pay a very negative legacy on Iraq in two respects. First, imposing democracy without understanding the costs. Second, undertaking a war without adequate planning.” Former-President Jimmy Carter was far less diplomatic, calling the Bush presidency the “worst in history.” The late conservative icon William F. Buckley echoed disapproval across the aisle, declaring in 2006 that Bush was not a true conservative, that the Iraq War had failed so miserably that any European prime minister would be expected to retire or resign, and that the president would have no foreign-policy legacy at all. As one former Bush administration official recently lamented, “What can I say? It looks very bad.”
Many inside the administration are counting on history—lots of it—to overturn this existing consensus. They believe that democratization will eventually come to the Middle East, and when it does, vindication will follow. In May, speaking on the sixtieth anniversary of Israel’s independence, the president shared his vision of the world sixty years from now: in 2068, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be settled; Iran and Syria would be peaceful nations; terrorism would be soundly defeated; and democracy and free trade would flourish across the region “from Cairo to Riyadh to Baghdad and Beirut.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice firmly believes that this ambitious vision is attainable. As she told me in June, international politics is filled with outcomes that seemed unimaginable beforehand and inevitable afterward. She recited with ease what she called the “list of horrors” that confronted President Truman after World War II: raging civil conflicts in Greece and Turkey, 2 million starving Europeans, large Communist electoral gains in Italy and France (“The question,” she noted, “wasn’t will Eastern Europe go Communist. It’s will Western Europe go Communist?”), a permanently divided Berlin, war in the Middle East, a Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, a Communist revolution in China, the explosion of a Soviet nuclear weapon five years ahead of Western predictions and the outbreak of the Korean War. “Is there any way to figure,” she asked rhetorically, “that in 1989, 1990 and 1991, Eastern Europe is going to be liberated, Germany is going to be unified on Western terms and the Soviet Union would be no more? Or that South Korea would have the eleventh-largest economy in the world? That France and Germany were never going to fight again? That in 2006 you’re going to hold a NATO summit in Latvia?” It is a lesson worth remembering. As Nobel Laureate economist Thomas Schelling once cautioned, “There is a tendency . . . to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable.”
Yet even if Bush’s hopeful vision of 2068 becomes reality, judgments of his presidency are not likely to change. Two reasons explain why. First, history more often magnifies than reverses. As years pass, memories fade and vital details are forgotten. All of the complexities and uncertainties swirling around the president and his aides in the moment dissipate and determinism sets in. In hindsight, policies are seen as either brilliant and inevitable (President Kennedy’s choice of a naval blockade during the Cuban missile crisis) or colossally stupid (President Carter’s aborted rescue mission of American hostages in Iran). In reality, both decisions were vigorously debated. And both were a hair’s breadth away from turning out differently. Had Kennedy made his decision on the first day of the crisis rather than the seventh, the United States would have launched an air strike against Soviet missiles in Cuba that could have triggered thermonuclear war. Had one helicopter pilot continued flying to Tehran when a notoriously unreliable warning light went on (the gauge had falsely indicated rotor-blade malfunctions forty-three times before), Carter would have given the rescue mission a green light, which could have altered the course of U.S.-Iranian relations and the 1980 presidential election. But these contingencies get lost with time. Yogi Berra once said that predicting is hard, especially about the future. In foreign policy, predicting the past is even harder.
Harry Truman’s presidency illustrates the lasting impact of first impressions. For many Bush officials, Truman is a comforting role model—another wildly unpopular wartime leader who aimed big and is now viewed as one of the presidential greats. As Rice reflected, “When you’re at the beginning of a big historical transformation, it doesn’t look like you’re doing much right.” Bush himself invoked Truman at his 2006 West Point graduation speech, comparing the struggle against Communism to the war against Islamic radicalism and noting that “Like Americans in Truman’s day, we are laying the foundations for victory.” No one disputes that Bush’s aims are sweeping or that, like Truman, he seeks to transform international relations for a new enemy in a new era. Bush’s second inaugural proclaimed American foreign policy to be nothing less than spreading “democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” The difficulty of the task, he said, “is no excuse for avoiding it.” Ending tyranny would be “the concentrated work of generations.” As Rice noted, the president does not just defend the status quo.
When it comes to vindication, however, the Truman parallels fall short. History’s judgment of Harry Truman came early, not late. His greatest cold-war policies were recognized as triumphs from the start, and his failures remain failures to this day. Truman’s March 1947 containment speech to Congress was met with a standing ovation and press reports that instantly hailed it as a historic landmark in U.S. foreign policy. His European economic-recovery program, the Marshall Plan, also attracted widespread public support (thanks in large part to the administration’s own public-relations campaign) and produced impressive and fast results. In 1953, just five years after it began, the Marshall Plan formally ended, Europe was well on its way to economic recovery and Secretary of State George Marshall received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. At the same time, history has not reversed judgment about Truman’s foreign-policy failures. Nixon may have opened China, but Truman still lost it. For starving North Koreans or anyone who worries about Kim Jong-il’s nuclear weapons and crackpot tendencies, the Korean War is still searching for a happy ending.
Truman, like Bush, did face stormy opposition and plummeting public approval during his presidency. But his low popularity had many causes, and foreign policy was not the primary one. Postwar economic reconversion, high taxes, government spending, labor disputes, the firing of General Douglas MacArthur, the anti-Communist hearings of Senator Joseph McCarthy and salacious corruption scandals including influence peddling with fur coats and deep freezers all helped to sour the public’s mood by 1952. In January, Truman’s public disapproval hit a whopping 67 percent, a record surpassed only by the current president. Notably, the same poll asked Americans what they believed were the most important issues in the 1952 presidential election. More said government waste and corruption than the Korean War. Republican Party leaders agreed, ranking corruption and wasteful government spending their top two campaign issues by overwhelming margins in a November 1951 Gallup poll. The Korean War ranked a distant fourth (behind taxes), and other foreign issues were even lower. Domestic policy, not foreign policy, was the administration’s greatest weakness and the Republicans’ best hope. Combating the “mess in Washington” became one of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s central campaign themes. The Republican presidential nominee made headlines and scored one of the biggest ovations of the campaign when he assailed the Truman administration as “barefaced looters” during an Indianapolis stump speech. The notion that Truman was drummed out of office for foreign-policy failures that were subsequently judged successes might be comforting, but it is not correct.
The second reason current judgments of Bush are likely to endure has to do with historical knowledge and causation. Americans have notoriously short political memories. At the start of the Iraq War, Saddam Hussein publicly invoked a seven-hundred-year-old Sunni grudge against Shia, comparing the American invasion of 2003 to the Mongol invasion of 1258. By contrast, most Americans would be hard-pressed to remember the name of Gerald Ford’s vice president (it was Nelson Rockefeller), let alone anything earlier. In 1999, a University of Connecticut survey found that only 23 percent of seniors at America’s top fifty colleges correctly identified James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution,” while 98 percent knew that Snoop Doggy Dogg was a rapper.
When memories are short, timing is everything. The cold war’s end illustrates just how powerful proximity can be. Many presidents waged the cold war, but Ronald Reagan is credited with ending it because he had one thing no one else did: good timing. The Soviet Union collapsed four decades after containment began but just three years after Reagan left office. There was nothing magical about 1991, and countless factors could have shifted the timing. What if Yuri Andropov’s kidneys had been a little better, enabling the Soviet leader’s hard-line regime to stay in power longer than fifteen months in the early 1980s? What if Boris Yeltsin’s drinking had been a little worse, preventing him from facing down the August 1991 Communist coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev or later demanding Gorbachev’s resignation? Had the cold war lasted even a few years longer, Reagan’s role would almost certainly be viewed differently.
Even the most optimistic projections of democratization in the Middle East are not banking on the short term. Rice sees the region moving at different speeds, with fast changes in Iraq and Afghanistan, where tyrannical regimes were “wiped away,” but slower, more evolutionary progress toward political pluralism in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. “I tend to think that everything is accelerated by rapid, modern communication and the shrinking of the globe, so that what might have taken sixty years might take twenty-five,” she noted. “But,” she added, “I don’t think it will be five.” General Wesley Clark, former NATO supreme allied commander and Democratic presidential candidate, warned that the “rolling on of history” makes it unlikely that future successes will or even should be tied to current policies. When I asked him whether a democratic Middle East in the next century might revise history’s judgment of the Bush administration, Clark replied, “Will we remake the Middle East in a hundred years? It’s possible in the same way that the starvation of the Kulaks preceded in Ukraine to the Great War, which preceded the defeat of the Nazis, which preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union. Without the Soviet Union, there would be no free Ukraine today. So is it right to conclude that without the starvation of the Kulaks, there could be no free Ukraine today? People tend to assume ‘causations’ from historical precedence.” The history argument, Clark concluded, “just doesn’t carry a lot of weight.”
AN ANALYSIS of Bush’s legacy cannot end simply with verdicts of his present performance. It must also incorporate a sense of his future influence. Given the near-universal criticism of Bush’s foreign policy, it is hard to imagine that anything remotely related to it will last a day past January 20. Yet the truth is that Bush’s big ideas are here to stay. Regardless of who wins the presidential election in November, Bush’s freedom agenda, which calls for spreading democracy to extend peace between states and combat terrorism within them, will almost certainly endure. Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama criticize the war in Iraq, but champion the spread of democracy in the Middle East. They decry America’s loss of moral standing in the world, but advocate a continuation of the American moral crusade. Although they attack Bush’s tactics—suggesting we nurture alliances more and torture detainees less—they embrace Bush’s core strategic vision: that peace and security are inextricably linked to the spread of liberty. Neither candidate has repudiated the freedom agenda. Ironically, George W. Bush, a president whom historian Simon Schama judged a “catastrophe,” has set the intellectual foundations of American foreign policy for the next generation.
To understand how this could be, how a president so scorned by his contemporaries could forge the framework of the future, we need to look at the freedom agenda within the broader context of American foreign-policy history and the narrower context of strategic options the administration confronted after 9/11.
The freedom agenda was first articulated in 2003, then refined in the president’s second inaugural address and the National Security Strategy of 2006. This was no do-gooder doctrine but an intimate marriage of interests and ideals. The freedom agenda advocated spreading democracy because it was both the right and safe thing to do: history had shown that democracies did not wage wars against each other, and 9/11 revealed that the root cause of extremist terrorism wasn’t poverty, but the absence of political freedom. As Rice explained, if you look at where the 9/11 operatives grew up, “it was a Middle East that was an exception to almost every other region in the world, where there hadn’t been movement toward democratization and pluralism, but rather where you had authoritarian governments that knocked out all of the political space for legitimate political discourse. . . . If you’re going to have an answer for these people in radical mosques, then the answer can’t be greater support for authoritarians that can crack down on them. The answer has to be providing the political space for some alternative form of political expression.” So long as the Middle East stayed in the clutches of authoritarian rulers, the president warned, “it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export.”
Contrary to popular belief, the freedom agenda’s core ideas—the connection between security and liberty, the importance of American moral leadership in the world, the melding of interests and ideals in foreign policy—did not spring from the minds of Vice President Dick Cheney or a handful of neocon henchmen. They were first imagined by the Framers of the Constitution, have been embraced by both Democratic and Republican presidents throughout American history, and reflect a dualism inherent in the American foreign-policy tradition.
American foreign-policy attitudes have always been famously contradictory, embracing both Hobbes and Locke in a tense grip. The Founders were at once deeply suspicious of human nature and wildly optimistic about their American democratic experiment. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” wrote Madison in Federalist 51. It could have been a page from Thucydides, whose ancient history of the Peloponnesian War captured the dog-eat-dog realist view of international politics with the line, “The strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.” The Framers combined this sober-eyed view of the nature of man, the role of power and the inevitability of conflict with a dreamy optimism about the universality of American values and the righteousness of the American cause. “The world has its eye on America,” wrote Alexander Hamilton. “The influence of our example has penetrated the gloomy regions of despotism.” Hamilton looked forward to the day when American democracy would be blessed and imitated by the world. This uncomfortable duality—mixing both interests and ideals, pessimism and hope, stability and revolution—has always been part of America’s DNA.
For much of American history, however, strategic necessity kept America’s moral impulses mostly at bay. In the late eighteenth and much of the nineteenth centuries, foreign policy was domestic policy. The fledgling United States was literally surrounded by ambitious European powers, with the British in Canada, the Spanish in Florida and the far West, and the French controlling vast swaths of territory in between, including navigation down the vital Mississippi River to the port of New Orleans. For generations, presidents did not have the luxury of promoting cherished American virtues abroad. They were too busy guarding against the looming threats of invasion and economic strangulation here at home. John Quincy Adams waxed eloquent about the glory of American liberty in 1821, but he also made perfectly clear that Americans could not be in the business of spreading that glory anywhere else. “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be,” Adams declared. But America “goes not in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” As former–National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft noted, American foreign policy followed Adams for more than a hundred years. “When the French Revolution happened, we said ‘We wish you luck.’ In Hungary in 1848, there were little Statues of Liberty everywhere there. And we said, ‘We wish you well,’ ” said Scowcroft. “Not until Woodrow Wilson did we think we had an obligation to spread democracies.”
Wilson’s moralism turned out to be short-lived as nuclear weapons spread and the cold war emerged. American presidents continued to espouse the virtues of freedom and the spread of American values, but balanced these idealistic ambitions with a careful eye toward guarding American security in a terrifying nuclear age. Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson condemned the brutal Soviet crackdowns during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Prague Spring of 1968, but neither was willing to aid the cause of liberty enough to risk a direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan, now glorified as a warmhearted idealist, spoke eloquently of the virtues of liberty and the evils of the Soviet empire in his speeches. But he tilted much farther toward the hard-hearted realist in his actual dealings with his Soviet enemies. When Poland’s Communist regime imposed martial law to quash Lech Walesa’s Solidarity union movement in 1981, Reagan gave strong public support, but only quiet covert assistance—even he was not about to risk nuclear war for Gdansk. And in 1983, when terrorists killed more than two hundred American Marine peacekeepers in Beirut, Reagan made clear that U.S. forces were there to promote regional stability and American national security, not guarantee Middle Eastern freedoms. “We’re not somewhere else in the world protecting someone else’s interests,” Reagan told the country in a televised address. “We’re there protecting our own.”
The cold war’s end took the lid off these security constraints. The result was a decade of intellectual drift between self-interested realism and noble-minded idealism. In the early 1990s, George H. W. Bush was the ultimate pragmatic realist whose frequent use of the phrase “wouldn’t be prudent” became part of Dana Carvey’s hit parody on Saturday Night Live. In the mid-1990s, Bill Clinton’s national-security advisor, Anthony Lake, declared “enlargement” of the world’s democracies the paramount post-cold-war goal, and Clinton backed it up by authorizing military interventions in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. By 1997, a moralistic and macho Harrison Ford had replaced the bespectacled and contemplative Dana Carvey as America’s favorite faux president. In the movie Air Force One, Ford gives a stirring speech where he veers off script and into our hearts by declaring, “Real peace is not just the absence of conflict. It’s the presence of justice. Tonight I come to you with a pledge to change America’s policy. Never again will I allow our political self-interest to deter us from doing what we know to be morally right.” Nothing captured the gestalt of the moment better.
Then came 9/11, which revealed the complexities and dangers of a globalizing world and fused U.S. security interests and American ideals in new ways. As one former Bush official described it, the administration “was hit upside the head with this incredible event and were searching for what they could do.” It was not easy. As Clinton National Security Advisor Anthony Lake noted, “I don’t think there’s ever been a more complicated period when thinking about grand strategy.” Realist considerations like governments and power still matter, said Lake, but at the same time, “the security of people abroad is more inextricably linked to the security of Americans than ever before. Globalization is a fact. And the power of governments, while extremely important, is more constrained than ever before.” For officials inside the Bush administration, the visceral impact of 9/11 was dramatic. “It’s one thing to think about the possibility of large-scale terrorist attacks and discuss it in an academic environment,” noted Eliot Cohen, a former professor and current counselor to Secretary of State Rice. “But to drive into work and see checkpoints manned by soldiers of the national guard? And go to the Pentagon and still see the smoke rising?”
Something had to be done. The moment demanded a change of strategy. But the answer was not obvious and the options were limited. Poverty as the root cause of terrorism had been debunked: everyone knew that Osama bin Laden was wealthy, the 9/11 hijackers were well educated and middle class, and that the world’s poorest countries were not producing most of the world’s terrorists. Meanwhile, think tanks, universities and other repositories of foreign-policy intellectuals weren’t much help, either. They had produced a Tower of Babel, filled with overlapping, competing and confusing “isms”: conservatism and neoconservatism; realism, classical realism, neorealism, true realism and enlightened realism; democratic realism and democratic globalism; liberalism, liberal imperialism, liberal utopianism and liberal internationalism; Wilsonianism, Jeffersonianism and a sprinkling of other famous-people “isms,” to name a few. In the post-9/11 world, nothing seemed what it was. Conservatives were cautious about change and the use of government. Neoconservatives sought radical transformation of the world and advocated the use of American power to spread American morals. Some neoconservatives argued their worldview wasn’t neo; others argued it wasn’t conservative. Realism was equally confusing. In the old days, realism was the worldview of tough-guy masterminds like Metternich and Kissinger, men who focused unsentimentally on promoting the national interest. For them, foreign policy was all about power—how to get it, how to use it and how to keep others from catching up. Almost overnight, however, realism was being pooh-poohed as stodgy, overly cautious, multilateralist, even wimpy.
Within this muddle, democratization was clear, attractive and readily available. It had always been part of American foreign-policy thinking in one way or another. It tapped into deep American impulses. It was vigorously advocated by many inside the administration. And it resonated with the president and Condi Rice. “The president does have a strong moral streak,” said Rice. “Certain things are right. Certain things offend him. People living under tyranny offends him. And it offended him from the day he came to office.” Perhaps most important, the freedom agenda had no attractive competitors. When I asked Democrats and Republicans alike what strategic alternatives to the freedom agenda existed then or now, one said poverty reduction. Most either had no answer or said there wasn’t one.
Which brings us to the next president. It is not surprising that Senators John McCain and Barack Obama are running against the deeply unpopular foreign-policy record of President Bush whenever they can. Both candidates frequently criticize the Iraq War—Obama faults the president for starting it, McCain faults him for botching it. Both believe Bush has stretched the military too thin, damaged relations with allies, done too little on nuclear proliferation and gone too far with interrogation techniques used on suspected terrorists. What is surprising, however, is just how much McCain and Obama share Bush’s core foreign-policy belief: that American-led democratization offers the surest path to world peace. It is a testament to the lasting imprint of these ideas that foreign-policy debates in the presidential campaign are more about process and tactics than grand strategy or vision.
The similarities between McCain’s thinking and Bush’s are striking. McCain’s signature foreign-policy essay last year was titled, “An Enduring Peace Built on Freedom.” Bush’s introduction to the 2006 National Security Strategy similarly argued, “Peace and international stability are most reliably built on a foundation of freedom.” McCain described himself in a March 2008 foreign-policy speech as “a realistic idealist” who believes that American ideals “are transforming the world” but understands “that we have to work very hard” to build the foundations for an enduring peace. President Bush has described himself as “idealistic about our national goals, and realistic about the means to achieve them.” McCain warns that autocratic regimes in the Middle East offer a “false stability” that deluded American leaders for decades and that Americans must now “expand the power and reach of freedom there” to provide an alternative to extremism, instability and terrorism—exactly the same arguments made by Secretary of State Rice in a January 2008 speech to the World Economic Forum and more recently in a Foreign Affairs article. McCain and Bush even use the same metaphors, referring to democratization as a “pillar” for peace.
Obama also advocates democratization, the spreading of American values and American moral leadership, though without the darkness of Dick Cheney or the battle cry of “One hundred years in Iraq.” His is a kinder, gentler freedom agenda, but a freedom agenda nonetheless. His top foreign-policy advisors include Tony Lake and former–Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Clinton officials who argued forcefully for a more muscular American moralism, who championed major humanitarian interventions in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, and who called for the spread of democracy worldwide.1 Even Obama’s former top advisor, journalist Samantha Power, made her name chronicling twentieth-century genocides and issuing calls to action in her Pulitzer Prize–winning book, A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide. Before getting sacked for calling Hillary Clinton a “monster,” Power took to calling herself “genocide chick,” hardly the moniker of a Morgenthau realist.
Obama’s writings and speeches reflect these attitudes. His key foreign-policy article, “Renewing American Leadership,” opens by acknowledging that now more than ever “the security and well-being of each and every American depend on the security and well-being of those who live beyond our borders.” Bush made the same point in his second inaugural address, declaring, “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” In a series of foreign-policy speeches last year, Obama managed to out-freedom Bush, arguing that the United States must export economic opportunity as well as democracy to “dry up the rising well of support for extremism.” Speaking to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Obama explicitly agreed with Bush’s view that “America’s larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom—that it is the yearning of all who live in the shadow of tyranny and despair.” But, he added, “this yearning is not satisfied by simply deposing a dictator and setting up a ballot box.” The “true desire of mankind,” Obama declared, was to live in “dignity and opportunity,” with sufficient food, water, shelter, education and health care to sustain “security and simple justice.” In a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Obama went even further, describing the “desperate faces” he so often saw looking up at his helicopter in places like Darfur, Djibouti and Baghdad. The task of American foreign policy, he argued, was to change how those desperate faces saw America. “We can hold true to our values, and in doing so advance those values abroad,” Obama declared. “And we can be what that child looking up at a helicopter needs us to be: the relentless opponent of terror and tyranny, and the light of hope to the world.” It was vintage Bush, suffused with the same ambitions for American moral leadership and the same belief that freedom builds the surest road to peace.
For Bush, McCain and Obama, the freedom agenda is so powerful because it is so American. The United States cannot help being the Sally Field of great powers, always wondering and working to be sure the rest of the world really, really likes us. Can anyone imagine Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Hu Jintao or French President Nicolas Sarkozy staring out of the helicopter and worrying whether the desperate faces in Darfur or Baghdad see their countries as beacons of hope? Democrats and Republicans may attack each other on vital specifics, but they agree on the helicopter big picture. As one Bush official noted, “There is something vaguely amusing talking to the Democratic national-security types and the Republican national-security types who want to draw very great distinctions. But the fact of the matter is they don’t disagree that much. They’re members of the same club. They go to the same watering holes, they attend the same conferences, they write for the same magazines.” It is telling that the only major presidential candidate of either party to repudiate the freedom agenda was Republican Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX). He failed to win a single primary contest.
George W. Bush will not be judged kindly by history. But make no mistake: his freedom agenda will endure in the next administration and beyond.
Amy Zegart is an associate professor at UCLA’s School of Public Affairs. She is also a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, as well as a fellow at UCLA's Burkle Center for International Relations.
1Albright again defended Clinton’s interventions from the 1990s, bemoaned the resilience of sovereignty, criticized the Iraq War and defended the idea of using troops to promote human rights in a June 11, 2008, New York Times op-ed, “The End of Intervention.”
Published: Tuesday, September 16, 2008