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Bush’s failed freedom agenda

Bob Burnett
25 June 2007

The George W Bush administration has in recent years labelled its interventionist foreign policy "the freedom agenda". Although based upon values shared by all Americans - freedom and democracy offer the best alternatives to repression and radicalism - the freedom agenda's focal concept is deeply ideological: capitalism produces democracy. In application, this idea has had dreadful, unintended consequences: it has tarnished the reputation of the United States and soured the appeal of democracy to most of the world.

The United States's latest National Intelligence Estimate (completed in April 2006, and selectively leaked in September) stated that the "war on terror" is failing: the war in Iraq has actually increased the worldwide threat of terrorism. As a result, a cornerstone neo-conservative notion - it's in the world's best interest for the US to act unilaterally whenever it feels it needs to - has been discredited. Nonetheless, a closely related assertion - unfettered capitalism inevitably produces freedom and democracy - has gone unchallenged in the United States. Yet, this notion has also been proven false.

In his second inaugural address, in January 2005, President Bush proclaimed: "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you." But the administration invested little energy in the logical outcome of this agenda: President Bush increased the number of meetings with democratic dissidents from authoritarian states, but failed to marshal effective programmes against abusive regimes such as Burma and Sudan. The focus of the freedom agenda wasn't repressive regimes, but rather closed markets.

Bob Burnett is a writer based in Berkeley, California. He can be reached here.

Also by Bob Burnett in openDemocracy:

"A liberal foreign policy for the US: ten maxims"
(27 February 2007)

"America's choice: imperial vs constitutional rule"
(10 May 2007)

"The road not taken: the Iraq Study Group"
(21 May 2007)

"Alberto Gonzales's cookery lesson"
(30 May 2007)

The neocon dialectic

On 6 June 2007, during Bush's trip to the G8 summit, he reaffirmed the freedom agenda in a speech in Prague. Behind his noble words was the president's unwavering insistence on open markets. Patricia Cohen reported that Bush told G8 leaders "political liberty is the natural byproduct of economic openness." He expressed the dogmatic neo-conservatism that guides his administration: "open your markets and democracy will surely follow."

The mechanical, neo-conservative nostrum that unrestrained capitalism gives rise to democracy has guided Bush administration foreign policy in Iraq, the middle east, and the rest of the world; and has had a powerful impact on US domestic policy. Unfortunately, the Bush doctrine has failed everywhere it's been applied. Open markets didn't produce democracy in Iraq, because the American-led occupation neglected to provide for the prerequisites of democracy: namely, a viable institutional infrastructure enabling civil society to operate effectively.

There have been many indicators that Iraqis have become fed up with the US and its aggressive ideology. A WPO poll released on 26 September 2006 found that 71% of Iraqis wanted US forces to leave within a year and 78% believed that the US occupation is "provoking more conflict than it is preventing". The BBC poll published on 19 March 2007 found that 65% of Iraqis described their situation as "quite bad" or "very bad", and indicated support for a unified country is rapidly dwindling. A San Francisco Chronicle article on 5 June 2007 indicated that the vast majority of recent college graduates plan to leave Iraq.

George W Bush intended Iraq as a model democracy, one that would serve as an example of the "freedom agenda" for the rest of the middle east. However, a survey of six middle-eastern countries in 2005 found that Bush's freedom agenda has had an adverse impact: "In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two countries where the US has focused its democracy message, the effort appeared to backfire... Of the four percent in Egypt and nine percent in Saudi Arabia who said that 'President Bush's promotion of democracy and reform' was the most important factor determining their attitudes toward the U.S., over 80 percent said this effort worsened their view of the U.S."

More recent reports, such as the Pew global attitudes project that measures international opinion about the United States, reinforce such findings. On 17 May 2007, Princeton professor Steven Kull presented the results of his survey of attitudes towards the US in the Muslim world (including the middle east) to the House of Representatives committee on foreign affairs. The view of the Muslim world appears overwhelmingly negative: 93% of Egyptians give the US an "unfavourable" rating. Kull noted: "Muslims share the worldwide view that the US does not live up to its own ideals of international law and democracy... and that it hypocritically supports non-democratic governments that accommodate its interests."

The democratic blowback

As the world grows more cynical about the United States and the Bush "freedom agenda" alike, there's been a backlash against democracy - particularly the association between capitalism and democracy. Patricia Cohen quotes Ralf Dahrendorf's worry "that when democracy fails to deliver the economic goods, people begin to doubt its value... Few things seem more difficult and yet few things are more important for sustainable liberty than to separate capitalism and democracy in people's minds."

Harvard professor Bruce Scott echoes the point: "Capitalism doesn't necessarily lead towards democracy at all... The one thing that you can say is that capitalism is going to relentlessly produce inequality of income, and eventually that is going to become incompatible with democracy." This is what we see in countries such as China and Russia: the growth of capitalism without an increase in freedom - the phenomenon that Israeli professor Azar Gat describes as "authoritarian capitalism".

Americans have had a hard time coming to grips with the dreadful consequences of the Bush administration. Most have finally realised that the invasion of Iraq was a terrible mistake. And many now understand that America's image in the world has severely deteriorated during the six and a half years of the Bush presidency. Nonetheless, many Americans fail to recognise that one of the United States's most cherished beliefs is in jeopardy: the notion that America is a beacon of liberty, a "shining city on a hill".

The White House has debased this notion with its cynical "freedom agenda" and its underlying assertion that capitalism breeds democracy. The result has not been an increase in freedom and democracy, but rather the opposite: throughout the world inequality and chaos are on the upswing.

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