How to look credible in promoting liberty

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George W. Bush wants Americans and the world to believe that the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime two months ago represented a defeat for tyranny and a victory for liberty. No one has devoted more words to framing regime change in Iraq in these terms than the president.

In the debate leading up to the war, Mr. Bush and his administration focused primarily on Iraq's acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and the threat they posed to the US to justify military action. After military victory, however, Bush has emphasized the larger objective of promoting liberty in Iraq and the greater Middle East, especially because the search for weapons of mass destruction has produced such limited results. This mission statement for Iraq echoes convictions Bush stressed in every major foreign policy speech given since Sept. 11.

The president, however, has one big problem in pursuing this foreign-policy agenda. Few believe he is serious. Around the world, many see an imperial power using its military might to secure oil and replace anti-American dictators with pro-American dictators.

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At home, isolationists in both the Republican and Democratic parties shudder at the folly of another Wilsonian mission to make the world safe for democracy.

Both at home and abroad, observers of Bush's foreign policy are confused by the mixed messages it sends. Was the war against Iraq undertaken to eliminate weapons of mass destruction or to spread liberty?

Bush faces an even more daunting challenge in making his commitment to democracy-promotion credible - the perception of hypocrisy. Bush has shown more concern for bringing freedom to Afghanistan and Iraq than to Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.

If Bush is truly committed to a foreign-policy doctrine of liberty-promotion, none of these criticisms is insurmountable. But they must be addressed. Especially now, with end of war in Iraq, what Bush says and does will define the true contours of his foreign-policy doctrine. Is it a liberty doctrine? Or does the language of liberty camouflage ulterior motives?

We will know that Bush is serious about promoting liberty if he credibly commits to four important tasks.

First, and most obviously, he must devote intellectual energy and financial resources to securing new regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq that, if not full-blown democracies, at least show the potential for democratization over time. To date, the record of achievement in both places is spotty. Bush has to keep these two countries at the top of his agenda, making regime construction as important as regime destruction. If democratizing regimes do not take hold in these countries, then Bush has no credibility in promoting liberty elsewhere.

Second, if Bush is serious about his stated mission, then he must give more attention to developing, funding, and legitimating the nonmilitary tools for promoting political liberalization abroad. The Marines cannot be used to promote democratic regime change in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, or Uzbekistan. Wilson had his 14 points and Truman his Marshall Plan. Kennedy created the Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps. Reagan started the hugely successful National Endowment for Democracy. Bush needs to lend his name to similar grand initiatives.

Third, in future speeches, Bush must flesh out the next phase of his liberty doctrine by explaining his priorities. Even the most powerful country in the world cannot bring liberty to every person living under tyranny all at once. But the president does owe the American people and the world a clearer game plan. It is no accident that Bush has given top priority to promoting democratic regime change in places where autocratic regimes were also enemies of the US. Fine, but what principles guide the next moves? There are also countries in which the promotion of political liberalization at this time could actually lead to less freedom, not more. What are the criteria being used to identify such places? To win supporters to his mission, Bush must present a rationale for the next phase of democracy promotion.

Fourth, even if the US does not have the capacity to promote freedom everywhere all the time, the president can make his commitment to liberty more credible if he develops a consistent message about his foreign-policy objectives, no matter what the setting. Words matter. Advocates of democracy living under dictatorship can be inspired by words of support from an American president. They can also become frustrated and despondent when the American president refrains from echoing his liberty doctrine when visiting their country. For instance, Bush's failure to speak openly about democratic erosion on his recent visit to Russia was a big disappointment to Russian democrats.

Some will always believe that the US is just another imperial power, not unlike the old Soviet Union, Britain, France, or Rome, exploiting military power for material gains. But for others of us who want to believe that the US has a nobler mission in the world, we are waiting on the president to give us signs of a long-term credible commitment to promoting liberty abroad.

Michael McFaul is a Hoover Fellow and associate professor of political science at Stanford University, and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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