Why George Bush's “Freedom Agenda” Is Here to Stay

Many people assume that when President Bush leaves office, most of his failed foreign policies—especially democracy promotion—will wither on the vine. But if there’s one thing we know about government, it’s that it’s much harder to dismantle programs than it is to create them in the first place.

U.S. Departement of StatesSome things never change: Once the State Department sinks its teeth into something, it rarely lets go.

One of Ronald Reagans favorite jokes was that A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life well ever see on this earth. There is wisdom in this wit. From the New Deal to Reagans missile defense, even the most controversial government programs often manage to survive their creators.

This is something to keep in mind now, as critics of George W. Bush dismiss his presidential legacy. Its true that the signature foreign-policy issue for Bushhis freedom agendais now bogged down in Baghdad. And there is ample pressure to shrink away from imposing Western-style democracy abroad. Americans rank democracy promotion dead last among foreign-policy priorities, according to a poll released last year by the Pew Research Center. But there is also good reason to believe that even while Democrats campaign to end the war in Iraq, the freedom agenda will long outlive this presidents tenure. The reason is simple: President Bush has been slowly ingraining his democracy-promotion policy in the vast bureaucracies of government. Reagan might have called it the democracy bureaucracy. In any case, its here to stay.

In government, anything that costs a lot of money becomes a high priority. Even setting aside the war in Iraq, this president is spending a healthy sum around the world on his freedom agenda. Since taking office, he has spent $6 billion on democracy projects and requested $1.5 billion for the most recent year, a near doubling since 2001. These figures dont include military spending on Iraq or the $18.4 billion allocated for the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund. Some money, of course, goes through the State Departments Bureau of Democracy, Humans Rights, and Labor. (A good way to ensure that policies outlive your term is to fund agencies that are staffed by career civil servants who will continue in their posts for years, even decades.) The president also bulked up the democracy bureaucracy with his Middle East Partnership Initiative, which funds local reform efforts and nongovernmental organizations in the Middle East and North Africa. It started as a two-person office at the State Department and has since grown to a staff of about two dozen in Washington and helped launch more than 350 democracy programs.

Perhaps more important than the numbers, though, is that high priorities of the president inevitably become higher priorities throughout the government. Democracy promotion wasnt a core mission of U.S. embassies and combatant commanders before Bushs presidency, but now it clearly is. Just this summer, at a conference on democracy no less, the president announced a directive to every U.S. ambassador working in an unfree nation: Seek out and meet with democracy and human rights activists. Even at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), democracy-promotion efforts before Bushs democracy bureaucracy began taking root look sluggish in comparison. Since 2001, the NED has awarded roughly 100 political dissidents from around the world with democracy fellowships that allow them to study and speak out in the United States. Compare that figure with the late 1990s, when the NED brought over, on average, just five activists a year.

In many ways, President Bush is hewing to another aphorism for entrenching political legacies: People are policy. This means not only ingraining your policies with bigger government, but carrying them out with strategically placed people who share your philosophy. Although it may be easy to discount talk of ending tyranny in the world as little more than that, backing political dissidents can help tip the balance. One example is Rebiya Kadeer, an ethnic Uighur from China and human rights activist who spent years as a political prisoner. The Bush administration lobbied for her release from prison, and she has since been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Is Chinas communist regime stronger for it? Hardly. If anything, Chinas restive Uighur minority is only more emboldened in their push for independence.

Bush has also created a government position many would likely notice if the next president abolished it: a special envoy to North Korea on human rights. Pushing for human rights is inherently a push for democracyauthoritarian regimes by their nature dont respect the individual rights and aspirations of their people. This is just one appointment that has the potential to start a new trajectory for U.S. policy. Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh and Republican presidential candidate Sen. Sam Brownback are already calling for a special envoy to Iran on human rights. The next president has the choice of supporting such envoys or risk looking callous to the plight of oppressed people, or worse, looking too soft on the worlds dictators. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton isnt going that route. Shes not even willing to commit herself now to meeting with North Koreas Kim Jong Il.

Indeed, Democrats are loath to be outdone by Republicans when it comes to something as all-American as supporting democracy and standing up to despots. We shouldnt forget that it was former Democratic President John F. Kennedy who created the U.S. Agency for International Development, today the largest grant-making agency promoting democracy in the Middle East. Or that it was former Democratic President Jimmy Carter who first put human rights at the center of U.S. policy toward communist nations, calling for the establishment of what is today the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. Although the next president might make the freedom agenda a smaller priority, or even neglect it a little, the infrastructure of the democracy bureaucracy will remain in place for the next president, and the next one after that.

Completely quashing the freedom agenda, and therefore Bushs legacy, wont be easy. It will require a willful dismantling of the broad-based democracy bureaucracy this president has taken special pains to grow with money, bureaucrats, government programs and, last but not least, score cards. In 2002, President Bush signed a law mandating that the federal government file a progress report each year on the freedom agenda. Titled Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The U.S. Record, it showcases everything the democracy bureaucracy has achieved during the past year. If you dont think bureaucracies live to file such reports, take a trip to Washington. Youll quickly understand why even unpopular bureaucracies live on forever.