Bush’s Anti-American Legacy

As Iraq becomes a hotbed for al-Qaeda terrorism, President George W. Bush’s legacy grows even dimmer. But one could argue that he did succeed in stirring democratic impulses in the region, albeit mostly of an anti-American variety, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar describes.

By Paul R. Pillar

The multifaceted push by the George W. Bush administration to inject more “democracy” into the Middle East, a set of policies sometimes grouped under the label of the “Freedom Agenda”, has generated much debate about its effectiveness that even several years of added perspective have not resolved.

The advent of the Arab Spring three years ago led defenders of Bush’s policies to claim this phenomenon as a positive consequence of those policies, while critics could still point to some glaring negative consequences.

President George W. Bush in a flight suit after landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln to give his "Mission Accomplished" speech about the Iraq War.

President George W. Bush in a flight suit after landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln to give his “Mission Accomplished” speech about the Iraq War on May 1, 2003.

An impediment to temperate discussion of this issue is how the biggest initiative not just of the Freedom of Agenda but of Bush’s entire presidency, the attempt, known as the Iraq War, to inject “democracy” into the Middle East through the barrel of a gun, was such a blunder and debacle that it overshadows what Bush got right about the political ordering of the region.

What he got right was more the diagnosis than the cure. The Middle East was, and still is, the Arab Spring notwithstanding, more of a democratic desert than most other regions. And the paucity of channels in the Middle East for peacefully pursuing political objectives and acting on grievances can affect the United States, especially by providing a more fertile breeding ground for violent extremism.

In the current issue of Political Science Quarterly Bruce Gilley has an interesting article that takes a balanced look at the results of the Freedom Agenda. Gilley notes that many of the claims both for and against the proposition that Bush’s policies successfully had a democratizing effect are expressed in “partisan, confused, and often contradictory language.”

One conclusion of his own more rigorous analysis is that the Bush policies could be said to have stimulated democratization in the Middle East in large part through Middle Easterners reacting negatively to the policies themselves. “The Freedom Agenda rhetoric,” Gilley writes, “tended to elicit anger, resentment, and distrust across the Middle East.”

Arab public opinion polls in 2006 and 2008 showed only 25 percent of respondents believing that the United States was sincere about promoting democracy in the region, with 65 percent disbelieving that. The rejection by the United States of the results of a free Palestinian election, which Hamas won, no doubt had a lot to do with that polling result.

The Iraq War was a negative, not a positive, model for people in the region. In other polling of Arabs, also in 2006 and 2008, only two percent of respondents thought Iraq was better off as a result of the war while 81 percent believed it was worse off.

Gilley says that these negative reactions had two visible effects. One was “to undermine the legitimacy of domestic democracy activists, who were disparaged as agents of an imperialistic United States.” But the other effect, and this is one of the ways in which the Bush policies could be said to have stimulated democratization, was the unintended one of creating “new political space for socialist, Islamist, and government/military reform advocates who sought to counter the Bush rhetoric with a new democratic rhetoric of their own.” Gilley cites as an example the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood announcing its own reform initiative in 2004, with demands for democratic freedoms and an end to emergency law.

This reaction involved a fusion of pro-democracy sentiment with an anti-U.S. and anti-Western variety of nationalism. In more recent Arab Spring days, this has been seen, for example, in Iraqi citizens deriding the Saudi regime as “slaves of America and Israel” for dispatching Saudi troops to suppress unrest in Bahrain.

This fusion brings us back to the hoary dichotomy of democratic values versus hard-nosed U.S. interests, but with a different twist. The dichotomy may be real not so much because of pro-U.S. sentiments of dictators, but instead because of anti-U.S. sentiments of democrats.

And that leads to the question of whether the sort of democratization that the Freedom Agenda wrought is such a good thing for the United States after all. Democracy per se is important for U.S. interests, including for those reasons having to do with propensity toward violent extremism, but anything that makes people more anti-American is also important for those interests, and for many of the same reasons.

Perhaps an appropriate summary of the Freedom Agenda’s consequences is that the Bush administration delivered some of the goods as far as democratization is concerned, but in the process damaged the goods in a way that made them less useful to the United States.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

8 comments for “Bush’s Anti-American Legacy

  1. Arnie Tracey
    January 6, 2014 at 06:37

    It’s not hyperbolic to say that the serial-father-draft-dodger Cheney and his cabal of global-mobsters: Rummy, Wolfowitz, Bolton, Abrams et al were/are criminally insane. Hence, should be locked away in a madhouse.

  2. Eddie
    January 5, 2014 at 21:48

    I for one have to agree with most of the above commenters, especially Ron Harwell. To start talking about Bush/Cheney& Co. caring about ‘democracy’ in the Middle East is just feeding into the propaganda – – – like taking seriously a serial killer’s defense that he was just trying to engage in population control for beneficent reasons. Come-on… somewhere around 1 MILLION Iraqi people (a conservative estimate) DIED in the Iraq War, and 3-4 MILLION were displaced. The word ‘democracy’ doesn’t mean much to people who are dead or sleeping on the ground at night, worrying about their next meal, and it certainly gives lie to any altruistic rationales that the US might have offered up. This was a contrived invasion to try to secure continued long-term access to mid-east oil (on OUR terms) and to help Israel’s position there – – – any other reasons offered-up were NOT seriously considered by Bush & friends but just tacked on as selling-points.

  3. Hillary
    January 5, 2014 at 10:15

    All Wars Are Bankers’ Wars

    Today we are experiencing the result of the neocon PNAC plan for the New American Century .
    The PNAC plan composed mainly by pro Israeli activists laid out their clearly .

    They stated that their agenda ideally required a “Pearl Harbor” event in the US. and “AMAZINGLY” a “Pearl Harbor” event came to pass and the rest is history.

    The invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq etc was followed by the CIA/Israel promoted unrest and civil war within Muslim countries in the Middle East as per the PNAC agenda in an orchestrated war against Islam …

    The unbelievable slaughter and destruction continues to this day…

  4. ORAXX
    January 5, 2014 at 10:12

    I’ve long worried that the Cheney/Bush administration achieved exactly what they set out to do, namely make a lot of money, for a hand full of people. Talk of democracy was nothing more than whitewash, used to gin up public support for the crimes they committed.

  5. Ron Harwell
    January 5, 2014 at 04:08

    Using the word democracy is incorrect–The US cares nothing about spreading “democracy” anywhere. What it wants is total control of a population, its assets and its resources. The US wants unfettered capitalism and corporatism law and order. The US has an historic record of stopping real social democracy in its tracks by regime change and outright murder–The US loves homicidal sociopath dictators and cares nothing about basic human rights or human beings for that matter. All the US cares about are resource rape and pillage and profits. It’s time to call a spade a spade and be done with it.

  6. January 5, 2014 at 01:17

    Bush urged people not to attack Muslims on the street and Muslim businesses, humble visited a mosque, and tried to get Muslims involved in his faith based initiative. Why have we forgot Cheney the real ogre in this mess?

    Most us us are messing up in understanding the al Qaeda danger including Ron Paul and his “If we leave them alone they will leave us alone.” Al Qaeda won’t leave anyone alone. It is not up to us to stop them, we may be the strongest but we are also the most out of touch to what is really going on.

    This elephant is not the creature best suited to stopping rabid mice. The peace movement trying to claim rabies is not a problem is wrong. The right answer is the US isn’t solving the danger and can’t.

    • Timothy Beauchamp
      January 5, 2014 at 06:12

      Bush, Cheney and their administration should be in PRISON in the Hague.


      a veteran

  7. F. G. Sanford
    January 4, 2014 at 16:14

    “Damaged the goods?” Mr. Pillar has elevated the art of understatement to a stratospheric new height.

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