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.

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3 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    I think it’s difficult to look at the US in the plutocratic Koch Bros./Citizens United era — to say nothing of its remaining, even more than 2 years after January 20, 2009, an era of Guantanamo and signing statements — and say that it is in fact continuing to pursue the ideals of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. For Americans to feel “more sure” that they are on the right track is a dangerous and undeservedly self-congratulatory delusion. Nor does the current prospect of a generation educated in schools from which all the teachers have been pink-slipped augur well for the country’s return to a better path in the future.

    According to Jacques Rancière, every state is oligarchic. He continues: “Strictly speaking, democracy is not a form of State. It is always beneath and beyond these forms. Beneath, insofar as it is the necessarily egalitarian, and necessarily forgotten, foundation of the oligarchic state. Beyond, insofar as it is the public activity that counteracts the tendency of every State to monopolize and depoliticize the public sphere. … Democracy is neither a form of government that allows oligarchies to rule in the name of the people, nor is it a form of society that governs the power of commodities. It is the action that constantly wrests the monopoly of public life from oligarchic governments, and the omnipotence over lives from the power of wealth.” (Emphasis added.) That action has recently been visible in some Middle Eastern countries. Not so in a billionaire-funded Tea Party. Nor in the deer-in-the-headlights inertia of a “left” that’s somewhere to the right of Richard Nixon.

    I am proud of the Egyptians (at least, for now and so long as they retain the peace with Israel, among other conditions); I am proud of America for many things; but it is the sheerest narcissism to suggest that Americans should be proud of themselves because the Egyptians & al. have somehow validated us.

  2. Jay Banks says:

    I heard that Bush could be compared to Harry S. Truman who also was in a very difficult position during his presidency and had to face a number of challenges many of which decreased his popularity but now he is considered as one of the most remarkable presidents not only in the US but also in Europe for his efforts to stop the spread of Communist ideas.