Discover more from Democracy and Other Problems
George W. Bush was wrong about human nature
The most moralistic American president was also the most hypocritical. This wasn't an accident.
This is the third in a series of posts on American foreign policy and the question of hypocrisy. Read the the previous post here. Subscribe to receive future entries.
For both better and worse, the George W. Bush years were fascinating. The rhetoric was remarkably grandiose. While some might accuse (or laud) me for being a moralist in foreign policy, the Bush administration’s way of putting things even put me off. It was simply too much. Which meant that it opened up the administration to (well-deserved) charges of hypocrisy. This is the problem with moralism—it opens up the space between words and deeds.
In the Palestinian territories, the election of the militant group Hamas in 2006 became the new cautionary tale. While the Bush administration understood the importance of elections, perhaps to a fault, it incorrectly assumed they would produce “moderate” outcomes.
In retrospect, this belief in our better angels was something close to adorable. One version of the belief—what we might call the “pothole theory” of democracy—found itself into the endearingly off-the-cuff pronouncements of George W. Bush. Responding to a question about Hezbollah in 2005, Bush had this to say:
I like the idea of people running for office. There’s a positive effect… Maybe some will run for office and say, vote for me, I look forward to blowing up America… I don’t think so. I think people who generally run for office say, vote for me, I’m looking forward to fixing your potholes.
Even though it was somewhat absurd, part of me absolutely loves this quote.
The absurdity, the moralism, and the hypocrisy all meshed together, producing unguarded moments of confusion and surprise. It is now the stuff of legend that National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s heart nearly fell of her treadmill when she first heard the news of Hamas’ election victory at five in the morning.
Democracy and Other Problems is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, become a free or paid subscriber.
It is easy to poke fun at moments like this that grow in significance with the passing of time. We know Hamas won, but it could have been otherwise, couldn’t it? There was a world in the which the “moderates” of Fatah might have won, and those who believed in such a world would have been drawing on a considerable academic literature. The belief that participation and moderation went hand in hand also happened to be intuitive—even if it turned out to be wrong. In my book The Problem of Democracy, I quote senior Bush administration official Elliott Abrams saying that “the assumption was that the average person is concerned about educating his or her children, making a living.”
In retrospect, he—like so many others—wondered how much good faith to extend to a fickle electorate. Here’s how he put it to me in somewhat more detail. There’s a lot here that’s worth reflecting on, and I appreciated his candor in expressing it this way.
There’s no question that some of the vote for Hamas was a protest vote against Fatah. But how much of it was that? And how much of it was the notion that Israel needs to be destroyed, and the only way to do that effectively is through violence? It's not zero. I mean, is it 5 percent? Is it 35 percent? Same thing in Egypt. When people vote for the Brotherhood, what are they voting for? And how many of them were actually, truly Islamists? Maybe we were much too optimistic in thinking, ‘You know, they're voting for good government. They're voting to end corruption.’
We run on assumptions. We can’t process the world around us otherwise. It would take too much time and effort. We go into each and every intellectual engagement armed with a set of premises around human nature and motivation. We assume, like Bush did with his “potholes,” that good things lead to other good things. If only we helped give Arabs the right to vote, they would do the right thing and vote correctly.
This didn’t just represent an error in analysis. It was an error that pushed the Bush administration to make promises it couldn’t keep, and to say things it didn’t really mean. I have little doubt that Bush, at some level, was a good, moral man. But being good isn’t enough.