September 16, 2011


Democracy and the Bush Doctrine (Charles R. Kesler, Winter 2004, Claremont Review of Books)

George W. Bush's first presidency, devoted to compassionate conservatism and to establishing his own bona fides, lasted less than eight months. On September 11, 2001, he was reborn as a War President. In the upheaval that followed, compassionate conservatism took a back seat to a new, more urgent formulation of the Bush Administration's purpose.

The Bush Doctrine called for offensive operations, including preemptive war, against terrorists and their abetters--more specifically, against the regimes that had sponsored, encouraged, or merely tolerated any "terrorist group of global reach." Afghanistan, the headquarters of al-Qaeda and its patron the Taliban, was the new doctrine's first beneficiary, although the president soon declared Iraq, Iran, and North Korea (to be precise, "states like these, and their terrorist allies") an "axis of evil" meriting future attention. In his stirring words, the United States would "not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most dangerous weapons."

The administration's preference for offensive operations reflected a long-standing conservative interest in taking the ideological and military fight to our foes. After all, the Reagan Doctrine had not only indicted Soviet Communism as an evil empire but had endeavored to subvert its hold on the satellite countries and, eventually, on its own people. The Bush Administration's focus on the states backing the terrorists implied that "regime change" would be necessary, once again, in order to secure America against its enemies. The policy did not contemplate merely the offending regimes' destruction, however. As in the 1980s, regime change implied their replacement by something better, and the Bush Doctrine soon expanded to accommodate the goal of planting freedom and democracy in their stead.

Captive Nations

On this point, the bush doctrine parted company with the Reagan Doctrine. Although the Reagan Administration's CIA and other agencies had worked to build civil society and to support democratic opposition groups in Eastern Europe, Central America, and other strategic regions, these efforts were directed mostly to helping "captive nations" escape their captivity. That is, they presupposed a latent opposition against foreign, usually Soviet, oppression, or as in the satellite and would-be satellite countries, against domestic oppressors supported by the Soviets. The Russian people themselves counted as a kind of captive nation enslaved to Marxism's foreign ideology, and Reagan did not flinch from calling for their liberation, too. He always rejected a philosophical d├ętente between democracy and totalitarianism in favor of conducting a vigorous moral and intellectual offensive against Communist principles.

But as a practical matter, the Reagan Doctrine aimed primarily at supporting labor unions, churches, and freedom fighters at the Soviet empire's periphery--e.g., Poland, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Grenada--rather than at its core. Even in these cases, the Administration regarded its chief duty to be helping to liberate the captive nations, that is, expelling the Soviets and defeating their proxies, rather than presiding over a proper democratization of the liberated peoples. Not unreasonably, the Reaganites thought that to those freed from totalitarian oppression, America's example would be shining enough, especially when joined to their visceral, continuing hatred for the Soviet alternative.

In countries where bad or tyrannical regimes were homegrown or unconnected with America's great totalitarian enemy, the administration's efforts in support of democratization were quieter and more limited still. These involved diplomatic pressure, election-monitoring, and occasional gestures of overt support, such as the administration's endorsement of "people power" in the Philippines. Most importantly, Reagan wanted to avoid the Carter Administration's hubris in condemning the imperfect regimes of America's friends, while neglecting the incomparably worse sins of America's foes.

The distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, classically restated by Jeane Kirkpatrick in her article that caught Reagan's eye, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," provided intellectual support for his administration's policies. Authoritarian regimes, like Iran's Shah or Nicaragua's Somoza, though unsavory, were less oppressive than totalitarian ones, Kirkpatrick argued. What's more, countries with homegrown monarchs, dictators, or generalissimos were far more likely to moderate and perhaps even democratize themselves than were societies crushed by totalitarian governments. And it was this potential of non-democratic but also non-totalitarian states to change their regimes for the better, in their own good time, that helped to justify America's benign neglect of or, at most, episodic concern with their domestic politics. Once freed from the totalitarian threat, countries like Nicaragua or Afghanistan could more or less be trusted to their own devices.

The wave of democratization that occurred in the 1980s, especially in Asia and South America, seemed to confirm the wisdom of the administration's approach. Even when America was called to play a role, as it was in the Philippines, our intervention was short and sweet, confined mainly to persuading Ferdinand Marcos to leave office.

By comparison, the Bush Doctrine puts the democratization of once totalitarian, quondam authoritarian, and persistently tribal societies at the center of its objectives. The case of Afghanistan shows, to be sure, that the Reagan Doctrine had its drawbacks. Left to itself, Afghanistan after the Soviets' withdrawal did not resume its former ways, at least not for long, and certainly did not evolve into a democracy. Instead, it succumbed to the Taliban's peculiar Islamic totalitarianism. Nevertheless, the Bush Administration's policy is not merely to expunge the totalitarians there and in Iraq, but to ensure that they never return by reconstructing their societies along democratic lines. Authoritarianism (at least in the Middle East) is no longer acceptable. The U.S. now proposes to liberate these nations from the captivity of their own unhappy traditions.

So far as it goes, that policy, or some version of it, might be justified by the circumstances and stakes of U.S. involvement, even as the American refoundings of Germany and Japan after the Second World War were justified on prudential grounds. Occasionally, the Bush Administration makes this kind of argument. (The analogies are not exact, of course--about which more anon.) But usually this claim is mixed up with a very different one that is more characteristic of the Bush Doctrine as such: America's supposed duty, as the result of our respect for human rights, to help the Iraqis and others realize their democratic entitlement and destiny.

...the most significant is that Ronald Reagan, for all his intuitive grasp that communism was both evil and weak, was largely driven by a genuine fear of apocalypse. Without a personal millenarian terror of the world ending in nuclear conflagration, he may well have not forced the issue with the Soviet Union. W was driven much more by his own views on universal human desire for freedom.

Posted by at September 16, 2011 7:01 AM

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