The Corner

Agreeing with Kevin Drum?

Kevin continues a debate about whether Obama and, by extension, the broader progressive movement have abandoned democracy, liberty, and freedom as key values. Rather than look at the merits of democratization and the core values of liberty and freedom on their own right, Drum forces them through a partisan filter, in effect using the issue of democratization and its failures in Egypt and elsewhere as a political football, regardless of what this means to Egyptians, Tunisians, Iraqi Kurds, Syrians, Saudis, and others suffering under dictatorship and gradually becoming more anti-American because of it. Drum writes:

This is really one of the most annoying of all tropes from the Bush-defending right.  The plain facts here are pretty simple: George Bush talked a lot about democracy, but he was in favor of it only when it produced results he liked. 

This is where I agree with Drum, but I wish he wouldn’t cheapen the point with partisan snark. The straw man construct simply does not work here. Myself and many others on the Right criticized George Bush’s approach irrespective of our party affiliation, for example, here and here. Many of us also criticized the turn to realism, even as progressives began to celebrate it.

Drum continues:

[Bush] loved the purple fingers in Iraq — though only after the UN and al-Sistani pretty much forced elections on him.  Conversely, when Hamas won an election in Gaza, it was not so fine. 

Both in Gaza and Iraq, the elections were poorly managed. Elections are not just about voting. Election systems matter. I still say that one of the greatest mistakes the U.S. and UN made in the post-Iraq war period was in election-system design. In both Gaza and Iraq (under Bush), and now (under Obama) with Lebanon and Iraqi Kurdistan, there is a blind eye turned toward political parties which, not content to simply gain legitimacy through the ballot box, also maintain party militias. 

With regard to Gaza, Mr. Drum should recognize that there is a difference between accepting elections results and viewing U.S. support and assistance as an entitlement. Hamas announced its refusal to abide by agreements the Palestinian Authority under Arafat’s leadership had made.  There is no reason why Bush should have continued to support the Palestinian leadership in Gaza when the conditions upon which aid was predicated had been violated. To do otherwise would be to undermine diplomacy.

I do agree a bit with Drum, albeit without the snark, when he says, “George Bush’s main achievement in this arena wasn’t to promote democracy, it was to completely cement Arab cynicism about America’s obvious lack of concern for democracy.” The difference between me and Drum appears to be that I don’t think partisan animus toward a previous president should excuse the abandonment of transformative diplomacy. Give Bush credit: He broke with the past and made democratization central to the debate. Cynicism toward democratization existed long before Bush was president when, in the context of the Cold War and after, Washington proved itself willing to coddle dictatorships. It is infuriating, however, that the gap between the rhetoric and reality of the Bush administration grew so large, and that in his second turn, Bush was willing to accept such backsliding in Lebanon, Egypt, and elsewhere.

That’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We know progressives don’t like Bush. There’s no reason to keep proving that. But progressives and liberals (I consider myself a liberal) should not, as Obama appears to do, embrace cultural relativism and thereby undercut democratization. The people of the Middle East are not simply a template to play out petty Washington battles. They deserve better.

I would certainly hope that Drum would look into the great work done by the National Democratic Institute (which works in partnership and alongside the International Republican Institute). Academics and democracy experts from across the political spectrum also debate these issues at MESH which, as Gulf-2000 has become more partisanship and polemical and less academic, has supplanted it as the place where experts go to hash out these issues.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.


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