The Other Bush Doctrine
As someone who thinks and writes about transitional justice issues, I have been far more interested in recent events in Sudan than those in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan (more on this in later posts), but that doesn’t mean I have not been watching in wonder and admiration the events unfolding in North Africa and the Middle East. I think we all have; and those are easy intellectual emotions to justify. What I have been more conflicted about is whether it is also appropriate for us to feel a bit of pride. I think it is, but not for the reasons many conservatives have been trumpeting.
More after the jump.
During the 2008 presidential election, Sarah Palin submitted to an interview with a painfully smug Charlie Gibson, who asked for her views on “the Bush doctrine.” It was a question so obtuse and ambiguous that it could only invite the appropriately annoyed and short response it got, which I shall paraphrase as “Which Bush doctrine do you have in mind Charlie?” Despite the assumptions of Palin’s critics, definite articles have no place introducing the phrase “Bush doctrine.” There are many. A policy of preëmptive war is certainly one; but there are others, including a theory of accessory liability for states that harbor or associate with terrorist groups and, most relevant for the present circumstances, his own version of the geopolitical theory of dominoes in fashion during the Cold War.
The Bush domino doctrine served as one of the back-up justifications for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the theory being that if Iraq became a stable constitutional democracy then the rest of the Middle East would soon follow. In the wake of relatively peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, rising protests in Yemen and Bahrain, an apparent effort to bribe away murmuring dissent in Saudi Arabia, and a more bloody revolution in Libya, we have been audience to inevitable crowing from Bush’s supporters and renewed skepticism from his critics regarding the accuracy of this Bush doctrine and the wisdom of the policies it helped to justify. I have no intention to enter this debate, in part because I view efforts to identify a single cause in the complex ecosystems of world-historical events as a fool’s errand, but more because I want to focus on another Bush doctrine, which he described forcefully, if not eloquently, in November 2003 and in December 2005:
I recognize people have—I fully recognize that some say it’s impossible, that maybe only a certain kind of people can be—can accept democracy. I just—I reject that. I don’t agree with that. I believe democracy—the desire to be free is universal.
The fundamental tenet of this Bush doctrine, as I understand it, is that certain commitments key to the American experiment inherited from Enlightenment liberals have a universal salience. There is no doubt that Americans in 1789 and Americans today fail to live up to these ideals. We should, then, be humble and always striving toward greater perfection; but we ought also be proud, more so now, I think.
I am on record here and here for the view that the United States Supreme Court ought to consider international and foreign views on a narrow set of constitutional questions that engage fundamental moral norms. My attachment to that view is Habermasian in spirit: we are more likely to get closer to the truth on these matters by expanding the conversation to include more people with an interest in the outcome. The pride I think we can feel in recent events is born of that same spirit. As people across North Africa and the Middle East fight for many of the rights, freedoms, and political liberties that our forbears identified as truths universal and self-evident, it seems to me that we ought to be proud, not because we did it—that’s the wrong Bush doctrine—but because when a people, in a moment of political and historical opportunity, pursue human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, we can feel ever more sure in our own continued pursuit of these ideals.