Tuesday, March 8, 2005

We’ve Got Him Where We Want Him

Republicans have been crowing that the “democracy dominoes” in the Middle East are a direct result of Bush’s foreign policy and vindication of the neocon’s philosophy. They’re saying that the Democrats are on the losing end of history. Not so fast, says Matthew Yglesias in The American Prospect.

Freedom, it seems, is on the march, and it’s giving many liberals mixed feelings. We had it pretty easy for the year or so in which the downward spiral of Iraq consistently disproved the administration’s rosy predictions. But now the president’s forward strategy of freedom has started racking up successes. This seems to present a quandary for liberals, who on the one hand want good things to happen in the world but on the other don’t want George W. Bush to get any credit for them. The result is cognitive dissonance.

But there’s no need for it. Mainstream liberals should be celebrating every step toward democracy that occurs in the world over the next three years, for two reasons.

The first is that recent democratic gains, such as those in Ukraine, Egypt, and Lebanon, are not the fruit of neoconservative policies but of liberal ones. The United States did not invade these countries, nor did we threaten to do so. Instead, our influence was exercised by liberal means — foreign aid, coordination with allies, and subtle diplomatic pressure.

In Egypt, progress came about by America doing not much more than talking about political reform and speaking out when the security services clamped down on the opposition. This is precisely what those of us who’ve grown hoarse over the years denouncing Bush’s hypocritically selective approach to democratization have been urging him to do.

And in Lebanon, the long-held neoconservative goal of reducing Syrian influence was achieved through a U.S. policy that the neocons would have laughed out of the room had it been proposed by John Kerry: support for a French-sponsored United Nations resolution! (It called on Syria to leave Lebanon, and the Bush administration initially resisted it.)


A president who achieves success by moving closer to his critics’ views deserves credit, but his critics have nothing to be ashamed of. Serious liberals never denied that spreading liberty and attacking the root causes of Middle East discontent were good ideas. Rather, we questioned the administration’s methods and seriousness of purpose. We observed that for all of Bush’s fine words, he seemed remarkably uninterested in doing anything about political conditions in U.S.-aligned states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. We argued that the administration’s policy was overly focused on the use of military force, and underappreciative of the power of multilateral diplomatic and economic actions.

I expect that at this point conservative readers are saying, “Maybe so, but what about the Iraq War? Wasn’t it the necessary precursor to these positive developments?” Well, no. Bush first called for an elected leadership of the Palestinian Authority in 2002. We invaded Iraq in 2003. The election was not held until 2005. The difference-maker, obviously, was not the election but the death of Yasir Arafat, something that can in no way be attributed to the invasion of Iraq.


All of which brings us to the second reason that liberals should be dissonance-free. To put things in the crassest partisan terms: Stunning foreign-policy success breeds domestic failure. Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior may have earned themselves a place in the history books for successfully managing the end of the Cold War. But in the realm of partisan politics, all they did was cost the Republican Party its best issue: anti-communism. The lack of the red menace took the issue off the table and enabled the Democrats to return to power on the strength of the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Liberals still ought to address our decades-old inability to win national-security debates. But if the next three years go well enough, that may become unnecessary.

Ironic, isn’t it, that Bush may be laying the groundwork for a Democratic resurgence. But then, the Republicans are not known for understanding the concept of irony.