Clueless on Cairo

My three-week victory, your seven-year mess

It is difficult trying to figure out what the left’s position is on democracy and the Middle East. Here’s a brief effort.

Once upon a time, a number of prominent liberals — among them Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid — thought it was a good idea to remove Saddam Hussein and supplant his Baathist rule with democracy. I say that with confidence since one can watch the speeches of the senators in question on YouTube debating the 23-writ authorizations to use force in October 2002, in addition to reading the New York Times and Newsweek editorials between 2002-3 of prominent liberal columnists. The New Republic stable of authors was particularly in favor of the Bush-Cheney “just war” to invade Iraq. Jonathan Chait (who would go on to author an infamous essay about why "I hate George Bush”) and Peter Beinhart were especially hard on the fellow left for not joining the Bush effort.

By early 2004, almost all that liberal support had entirely dissipated, predicated on two developments. First, a presidential election was just months away and Bush’s war was no longer “mission accomplished” but turning into a campaign liability. Second, a resistance had formed under hard-core Islamists that was beginning to take a heavy toll on American forces. No WMD had been found, and it was now easy to suggest that one could withdraw support for building democracy in Iraq because two of the 23 writs for going to war were no longer operative, the effort was probably lost, and George W. Bush might well deservedly not be reelected.

No matter. Bush pressed on. His polls sunk yet he was barely reelected. His ongoing “democracy” agenda got little support from those who once had enthusiastically praised the Iraqi adventure and had proclaimed their belief in universal human rights. Few came to Sec. of State Rice’s support when in 2005 she chastised Hosni Mubarak’s regime to grant fundamental rights. Fewer saw any connection between Saddam's fate and America's pro-democratic stance and the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, the fright of Mr. Gaddafi who gave up his WMD arsenal, or the sudden willingness of Pakistan to harness Dr. Khan.

Instead, “spreading democracy” was seen by the left as a wounded George Bush’s quirky tic. His talk about "universal" freedom was ridiculed more as a manifestation of a sort of evangelical Christianity than genuine political idealism. Bush’s zeal for democracy, then, was orphaned: the right was now realist again ("they are either incapable of democracy or not worth the effort to implant it") and the left multicultural (“who are we of all people to say what sort of government others should employ?").

Then and now

Note especially that Barack Obama, both as senator and presidential candidate, derided the war, declared the surge as failed, and wanted all troops out of Iraq by March 2008, regardless of the effect on the struggling Maliki government. That Bush also confronted Putin over the putdown of Georgia, allowed a plebiscite in Gaza, and warned of the anti-democratic tendencies of a Chavez or Ahmadinejad was drowned out by Iraq. Remember that these were the days of Cindy Sheehan, Michael Moore calling for a right-wing fundamentalist insurgent victory in Iraq, and novels and films envisioning the assassination of George Bush.

Fast forward to the presidency of Barack Obama. I think it is fair to suggest that all talk about promoting democracy was dropped entirely, and for three reasons: anything Bush had promoted was de facto tainted (“reset”); Obama’s multiculturalism accepted that all indigenous governments were more authentic than an imported Western democracy (cf. his silence over the brutal putdown of the Iranian dissidents); Obama was busy courting China and Russia, two authoritarian and powerful governments that could complicate any pro-democracy pressure on lesser states.