Freedom Fraud

By the fall of 2003, the main argument by which the Iraq War was sold to the public -- that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that it was likely to give to terrorists -- was looking pretty threadbare. Tacking with the wind, George W. Bush took advantage of the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a government-funded private agency that seeks to help groups around the world fighting for democracy, to reposition the brewing conflict by waxing Wilsonian.

He proclaimed that "from the Fourteen Points to the Four Freedoms, to the speech at Westminster, America has put our power at the service of principle." The Iraq invasion, it turns out, would not be about Saddam Hussein handing his soon-to-be-constructed nuclear bomb to al-Qaeda after all. Instead, it would be part of a new "forward strategy of freedom" -- the boldest step yet in a campaign to transform the Middle East into a sea of democracies, thus draining the swamp of tyranny in which terrorism grows.

The specific plan of action was finally bruited in February, when we heard that by June, the president would use the occasion of a G-8 summit on Sea Island, Georgia, to unveil a "Greater Middle East Initiative" aimed at boosting the level of foreign aid to nongovernmental civil-society groups in the region and thus promoting democracy. Like other Bush foreign-aid initiatives, it was a worthy, if modest, plan. But it was not to be. A draft of the plan was leaked that month to the Arabic press, provoking a firestorm of criticism from Arab dictators and leading the administration to rethink the whole thing.

The Bush administration's foreign policy is built on two grand claims. The first is a pragmatic one: that the administration has been uniquely successful in fighting the war on terrorism. This is an argument into which former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke has lately poked several capacious and damaging holes. The second claim is more historical and intellectual: that the administration has abandoned traditional foreign-policy realism in favor of a neoconservative ideology that blends the left's idealism with the right's ardor for military force and disregard for multilateral institutions. This claim positions the neocons as the 21st century's true warriors for freedom who will no longer brook alliances of convenience and support for dictators. ("Stability," Bush said in his NED speech, "cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.") And unlike the first assertion, which Clarke and others have countered, this is a claim on which Bush hasn't really been challenged at all. Bush even told The New Yorker's Ken Auletta that he was "the greatest human-rights president in history."

Is he? In a word, no.

The reality is that the "forward strategy of freedom" is yet another in a long string of administration smokescreens. While the White House has certainly adopted the longtime neocon policy goals of regime change in Iraq and unflinching support for Israel, along with serving up a great deal of humanitarian rhetoric, its actual policies vis-à-vis the rest of the world smack of the right's long-standing affection for dictators who promote America's short-term political and economic interests. In fact, Bush has pursued a set of policies that have left the world substantially less free than it was before he took office. Some progress has been made in Iraq and Afghanistan. But much larger countries like Russia, China, and Indonesia have moved backward, while the overall impact of the wars in Iraq and against al-Qaeda has been a wide-ranging set of clampdowns across the Middle East and in the former Soviet Socialist Republics of Central Asia to which the administration has largely turned a blind eye -- except when it actively abetted them.

The story begins in Afghanistan. Clearly, responding to the September 11 attacks was not only legitimate but necessary. Besides, the prewar regime was truly appalling, and its downfall opened the possibility of a major improvement in the regional human-rights situation. After the fall of Kandahar, however, the Bush administration made two related decisions that have had fateful implications for the cause of freedom.

First, Bush took a minimalist attitude toward the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The United Nations estimated that reconstruction would cost upward of $10 billion over the first five years, but the United States pledged only $296 million for the first year of reconstruction, combining with allies to secure a paltry $4.5 billion in commitments for the first five years, while restricting the operations of the peacekeeping International Security Assistance Force to the immediate vicinity of Kabul. Shortchanged in the process was basic security in the balance of the country, efforts to promote economic opportunity outside the opium trade, and construction of new schools and other elements of basic infrastructure.

The motivation, apparently, was a desire to free troops and other resources for a planned campaign in Iraq. As a result, the United States found itself forging opportunistic alliances with just about any armed group that could be persuaded to oppose the Taliban, including the Northern Alliance's least-savory affiliates like Ismail Khan and Abdul Rashid Dostum. The result is that although Afghanistan has, as Bush noted in his last State of the Union address, "a new constitution, guaranteeing free elections and full participation by women," facts on the ground bear little resemblance to the paper constitution. Real authority throughout vast swaths of the country rests in the hands of various warlords, drug traffickers, Taliban remnants, and their armed followers. As a March study by New York University's Center on International Cooperation reported, "Progress in the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of militias is barely discernable," and "it will probably be impossible to hold parliamentary elections this year." Afghanistan is doubtless freer than it was before in some ways, mostly having to do with the wider availability of consumer goods. But real democratic stability is unlikely to emerge in the near future, and almost certainly won't without a reorientation of U.S. policy toward nation building and away from further military ventures.

Minimalism regarding Afghanistan both reflected and drove a second policy choice: the decision to advance a maximalist approach to the war on terrorism by directing it at all Islamist groups around the world rather than focusing narrowly on al-Qaeda.

Bush's mix of minimalism and maximalism was the fatal error. It turned what could have been a promising opportunity for democracy building into a burgeoning rapprochement with many of the world's dictators, even while America's relations with democracies in Europe and Latin America deteriorated. The most famous case is Pakistan. Before 9-11, General Pervez Musharaff's military regime was an international pariah thrice over, subject to U.S. sanctions for its ties to the Taliban, for its violation of weapons-of-mass-destruction nonproliferation norms, and for the coup that brought Musharaff to power. But after the attacks, the Pakistani government agreed to cooperate with America's anti-Taliban efforts, and Bush soon described Musharaff as "a courageous leader and a friend of the United States." Granted, a temporary reconciliation with the Pakistani regime was a necessary first step to ousting the Taliban. But the minimalist failure to commit adequate U.S. forces to Afghanistan wound up worsening the situation as the United States became overly dependent on Pakistani goodwill to try to hold al-Qaeda in check while the U.S. government turned its gaze to the Euphrates. As a result, pressure on Musharaff to democratize has essentially vanished, and the country -- which, unlike many other Islamic countries, was a democracy, albeit a troubled one, just a few years ago -- seems condemned to military rule for the foreseeable future.

The war in Afghanistan was also the occasion for America's engagement with a less famous leader: Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, formerly the head of the local branch of the Communist Party and now dictator of a proudly independent country. The regime is probably best known for the systematic torture in its prison system, where one inmate was thrown into boiling water in a particularly infamous incident.

The lingering instability in Afghanistan made this semi-totalitarian state an attractive anchor point for U.S. efforts to project power into Central Asia, leading to the signing in March 2002 of a "strategic partnership" agreement between the United States and Uzbekistan. Thus, in exchange for the use of a military base, the Uzbek regime receives more than $50 million annually in aid, including about $12 million in military aid to finance the government's struggle against two Islamist groups. One of the groups in question, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, has never attacked U.S. targets; the other, Hizb ut-Tahrir, is not a terrorist group at all but an organization that seeks to promote Islamist politics through peaceful means. Neither group has an admirable political vision, but then again, neither does Karimov. His first name notwithstanding, his orientation is very much that of a secular Communist Party hack, and his war against Islamic extremism involves widespread repression of anyone who appears overly devout by, for example, praying too often or wearing a long beard. Legislation makes aid to the Uzbek government contingent on improvements in the human-rights situation, but when Uzbekistan flunked the State Department certification in each of the past two years, it was granted a presidential waiver allowing the money to keep flowing.

Rationalization of the partnership with Uzbekistan was facilitated by the adoption of a maximalist view of the war on terrorism that conflated Karimov's domestic opponents with America's enemies. Unfortunately, the logic of that position has had a ripple effect throughout Central Asia, where signs of a forward strategy of freedom are hard to detect. Like Karimov's government, the totalitarian regime of Turkmenistan, a second-tier partner at best in the war on terrorism, managed to escape designation as one of the "countries of particular concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act, which requires sanctions against egregious violators of freedom of conscience. The regime avoided such censure in spite of the fact that the State Department says that "the government continues to restrict all forms of religious expression." In particular, all religions other than Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy are illegal, and even the two permitted faiths "are controlled by the government." Even in Kyrgyzstan, formerly an island of hope, things have taken a turn for the worse in recent years as the flawed 2000 elections have been followed up by systematic harassment of opposition leaders, journalists, and nongovernmental organizations (of course, the Bush administration has good reasons for overlooking flawed 2000 elections). As in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian nations, counterterrorism operations partially funded through $10.3 million in aid from the United States make little distinction between real terrorists and nonviolent Muslim groups that simply oppose the regime.

After Afghanistan, of course, came Iraq. Retrospectively, the administration has relentlessly emphasized the humanitarian virtues of this war. But in the run-up to the war, this was not the chief argument. Indeed, no less a figure than Paul Wolfowitz told Vanity Fair in May 2003 that humanitarian considerations, though important, were "not a reason to put American kids' lives at risk." The president did mention Saddam Hussein's appalling human-rights record, but freeing the Iraqi people from their dictator's grip was presented as a beneficial side effect of regime change rather than a primary justification for invasion.

Many war proponents argued, however, that the war would result in a democratic flowering throughout the region. "A liberated Iraq," Bush told the American Enterprise Institute in February 2003, "can show the power of freedom to transform that viral region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions." And, indeed, it could, if the administration actually does create a stable democratic replacement for the Hussein regime. But the administration's consistent references over the years to anarchic Afghanistan as a democratic success story have always made the prospect that the Bush team would actually achieve this goal look rather dim.

One year on, events so far have largely borne the skeptics out. The tragedy, as Kenneth Pollack, a former Clinton National Security Council staffer and Iraq War advocate, puts it, is that "there was so much good work done" by the State Department's Future of Iraq Project on how to bring stability to the country -- and all of it was ignored. Instead, the administration chose to rely on unsound Pentagon analyses based largely on assurances from exiles that nation building could be done on the cheap. As a result, today's Iraq, like today's Afghanistan, is underpoliced, plagued by terrorist attacks, and populated with a wide variety of armed militias. On June 30, we will hand over sovereign authority to the Iraqi Governing Council, an organization widely regarded as illegitimate, to operate under a constitution that Iraq's leading cleric has repeatedly denounced.

Within Iraq's immediate neighborhood, moreover, there's been no sign of a democratic domino effect. The president and his defenders have tended to cherry-pick occasional signs of progress -- noting, for example, that Saudi Arabia has introduced "a plan for gradual introduction of elections." The pace of Saudi reform, however, is gradual in the extreme. The elections will be for municipal offices only and will not permit the formation of political parties. Most notably, only a minority of seats on the councils will be up for competitive election, leaving effective power -- even in the circumscribed sphere of local administration -- in the hands of officials appointed by the monarchy. Contrary trends could just as easily be cited.

Chief among those is Iran. The toppling of Saddam was supposed to give reformers in that country -- which, unlike Iraq, is a current state sponsor of terrorism -- the upper hand. But the recent elections there were a victory for the ruling mullahs: They disqualified nearly half the candidates running for parliament, and reformers lost most of their seats. Likewise, hawks who'd hoped regime change in Baghdad could be quickly followed by the liberation of Syria (another current state sponsor of terrorism) point to a March 7 human-rights demonstration in Damascus as proof of their success. At the same time, however, with the United States occupying Iraq, the top item on the U.S. agenda has been securing Syrian cooperation in efforts to control the border; human rights have taken a back seat. The State Department loudly condemned the hour-long detention of a diplomat observing the protest, but had considerably less to say about the harsher punishments doled out to the protesters themselves.

Drawing causal links between any particular event and the Iraq War is extremely hard to do at this point. What we can say for sure, however, is that the lead-up to the war made the region less free. Allied states in the area typically declined to endorse the Iraq War formally, though they offered tacit support to the American effort in the form of bases or flyover rights. Marc Lynch, a political scientist at Williams College who studies Arab reform efforts, says allied dictators in the area "know that they can't openly go against the United States, but because it's unpopular, they find themselves clamping down." This is, perhaps, the central paradox of Bush's foreign policy: It seeks to promote democracy abroad through methods that are opposed by the will of the populations of virtually every country on earth.

There are still other fronts, related to the war on terrorism somewhat less directly, on which three and a half years of Bush have hindered rather than helped democracy's spread. China occupies a significant chunk of territory that's linguistically, historically, culturally, and geopolitically tied to Central Asia. Thus, in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, a process similar to the one taking place in the "-stans" is under way as the People's Republic cracks down on the region's Muslim Uighurs. Before 9-11, the U.S. government had resisted Beijing's long-standing assertion that the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement is a terrorist organization closely linked to al-Qaeda and refused to place it on the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list. After 9-11, it did so.

According to Human Rights Watch, Beijing has taken advantage of the anti-Uighur campaign's newfound designation as an anti-terrorist effort and "closed printing houses producing unauthorized religious literature; instituted mandatory 'patriotic re-education' campaigns for religious leaders; stepped up surveillance of Muslim weddings, funerals, circumcisions, and house-moving rituals; arrested clerics; raided religious classes; banned traditional gatherings; and leveled mosques." And these are on top of China's more widely known human-rights violations. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin Powell writes proudly in the January 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs that "U.S. relations with China are the best they have been since President Richard Nixon first visited Beijing more than 30 years go," in part "because the September 11 attacks led us to shuffle priorities."

To the north, Russia's ongoing conflict with the province of Chechnya rather plainly has little in common with al-Qaeda's nihilistic war. Yet President Vladimir Putin finds it convenient to proclaim his campaign of repression just one more front in the war on terrorism. Bush might have distanced the United States from this position -- one that virtually ensures growing anti-American sentiment among Chechens and other Muslims in the Caucasus. Instead, he has continued to follow his strangely pro-Putin instincts, even as Putin has eliminated Russia's independent media, used highly selective prosecutions against opposition leaders, and secured a parliamentary supermajority for a party with no ideology beyond blind obedience to the Kremlin. All key government posts are now in the hands of former KGB operatives, and financing opposition parties can earn you a jail sentence. Bush is not to blame for all this, of course, but his failure to express any concern about it doesn't help matters.

Regional democracy advocates point to Bush's commendable conduct during the recent turmoil in Georgia as an example of how clear U.S. support for reformers can produce positive change. But it stands in contrast to the administration's behavior throughout the rest of the former Soviet Union. In Azerbaijan, for example, where the State Department says a president chosen through "an election marred by numerous, serious irregularities" dominates a "corrupt and inefficient" judiciary, Bush's post-election congratulatory note to that president, Ilham Aliev, hugely undercut the effort of local and international activists to protest the results. (Azerbaijan, not coincidentally, was one of many dictatorships that the White House proudly claimed as a partner in the coalition of the willing to "liberate" Iraq.)

An even clearer case of Bush's policies working to undermine democracy is Indonesia, home to 210 million people, overwhelmingly Muslims. Since the fall of the dictatorial Suharto government in 1998, the country has moved unevenly toward reform, with progress threatened by a military establishment populated by members of the old regime. Following massive military-instigated violence in East Timor in 1999, Congress cut off bilateral military contacts and assistance and made their resumption contingent on improvements in human rights.

The Bush administration, however, has waived these concerns and provided $50 million in counterterrorism assistance for Indonesian security forces. Improvements, meanwhile, have been hard to detect, with the province of Aceh currently under martial law and its residents subject to summary executions, "disappearances," and beatings that the government has failed to investigate, accompanied by a crackdown on press freedoms in the area. Human-rights organizations have also expressed concern over an uptick in recent years in prosecutions for the crime of "insulting the president or the vice president." Once again, rhetorical support for democracy gives way in practice to an expansive view of the war on terrorism under which it seems that anyone anywhere grappling with a group of rebellious Muslim citizens can count on unconditional U.S. backing.

American voters may or may not pay attention to such details. But the people of the world do pay attention to what America does in their neighborhoods, so it should hardly be surprising that this maze of contradictions has badly damaged U.S. credibility. The interesting element of the so-called Great Middle East Initiative's failure is less that it didn't gain the support of the Middle East's dictators (why would it?) than that the Middle Eastern public was cool to the idea as well. The Washington Post reported on March 20 that "even reformers privately say they fear that any U.S. imprimatur would discredit the initiative in the eyes of the Arab public."

The problem, says Lynch, is that "there's a real credibility gap" when it comes to Bush's pro-democracy rhetoric. "When George Bush goes to [Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak or goes to these folks in the [Persian] Gulf and he says, 'We need you to stay out of the way when we invade Iraq,'" rulers and ruled alike know that the president is serious. When he speaks of democracy while implementing an unpopular agenda and failing to impose any sanctions on local dictators as long as they cooperate with the U.S. military, Lynch says, people stop taking him seriously. As a result, Bush has "made it impossible for these people to align themselves with those sorts of demands" for liberalization.

The Great Middle East Initiative flip-flop, meanwhile, is only going to make it harder for the United States to get serious about democracy promotion in the future. Currently, the administration is working on reconfiguring the plan to make it more dictator-friendly -- less a visionary call for further steps than a grand public endorsement of already planned (and mostly minor) reforms. "Each nation has to find its own path and follow that path at its own speed," Powell told reporters at a March 19 press conference in Saudi Arabia designed to smooth ruffled feathers with the kingdom's ruling princes. This is a step that will encourage Arab leaders' current enthusiasm for a "China model" of liberalization -- securing certain market reforms without relaxing any political control. A China model may advance the interests of American business and allow the Bush administration to continue making foreign policy without regard to local public opinion; but if democracy is really the goal, it will only further delay its arrival.

The tragedy here is that Bush's speechwriters have things essentially right. A forward strategy of freedom that was realistic and meaningful would be an excellent thing to have. Unfortunately, the current one is nothing but a rationalization for a war that has done precious little to advance freedom anywhere.

The administration's maximalist framing of the terrorism war, and the deals it has cut with unsavory leaders because of that decision, is having its most deleterious effect on reformers in those countries. While the aforementioned regimes are at least nominally aligned with the United States against violent jihadism, perverse incentives exist that all but guarantee that the dictators will fight terrorism in about the same way that Captain Renault cracked down on gambling at Rick's. A Musharaff or a Karimov is only able to pitch himself as worthy of U.S. support on the grounds that the alternative would be worse. If not me, the dictators say, the Islamists would take over. In certain times and places this may, in fact, be a correct assessment of the situation. But ready U.S. acceptance of such arguments gives autocrats every reason to ensure that their regime -- and the world -- is always threatened by Islamist violence. If, somehow, the problem were to go away, so would the U.S. support, and backward regimes would find themselves without the kind of money and muscle that only the United States can provide against their remaining domestic opponents.

As a result, these autocrats tend to demonstrate much more interest in cracking down on liberal opposition groups than on the Islamists we are supposedly supporting them against. A perfect example is provided by Musharaff's antics in Pakistan's recent parliamentary election. Candidates were required to possess a college degree in order to be eligible, obviously a violation of democratic principles. But if the goal was to hold back an Islamist tide, why were madrassa certificates accepted as a qualification equivalent to a college degree? The result was that many secular candidates were banned from running, while all the leaders of religious parties were in the clear. The upshot: Islamists, who have never performed well in Pakistan's sporadic elections, more than doubled their share of the vote over their previous high. This, in turn, lends superficial credibility in the future to arguments that continued U.S. support -- to the tune of $3 billion over five years -- for the military regime is the only alternative to an Islamist takeover. The regime's shenanigans aside, however, there remains little reason to believe that radicals would win a free and fair election.

Turning this state of affairs around and moving toward a real strategy of democracy promotion ought to be an important part of the liberal alternative to Bushism. Unfortunately, Democrats don't seem very interested in democracy. John Kerry has called for increases in foreign aid, noting in one speech that "the president's budget for the National Endowment for Democracy ... is less than 3 percent of what this administration gives Halliburton" and pledging to "support human-rights groups, independent media, and labor unions dedicated to building a democratic culture from the grass roots up." These proposals, however, came in the context of a special foreign-policy address delivered at the University of California, Los Angeles' Burkle Center for International Relations and haven't been a prominent component of Kerry's campaign elsewhere on the trail.

There are a few Democratic exceptions, such as Senator Joe Biden, who delivered a strong address to the Libyan parliament on March 3. But for the most part, Democrats have not grappled with these questions in the way that they deserve. That party leaders have not, in the two and a half years since 9-11, produced anything resembling a plan for fighting terrorism abroad and spreading democracy bespeaks a tragic lack of seriousness. For too many rank-and-file liberals, meanwhile, the thinking seems to be that the mere fact that Bush says he's for something means we have to be against it. The problem with Bush's repudiation of realism isn't that it espouses high ideals but that his administration doesn't know -- or perhaps doesn't care -- how to put them into practice. Instead of replacing realism with something better, the president and his neoconservative advisers have simply made a mess of things. One can only hope that someone comes along who knows how to clean it up before it's too late.

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