Implementing the Freedom Agenda

In a series of public speeches and fact sheets the Bush Administration trumpeted its activities under the Freedom Agenda.  What did Administration do to advance the cause of freedom? In its early fact sheets,[9] the Administration focused specifically on democracy promotion and human rights initiatives, such as the following:

  • Increased funds for democracy building. Doubled the federal budget for democracy programs, such as support for good governance, human rights and election monitoring, and funding for civil society, political parties, and independent media.  For example the FY2009 budget requested $1.72 billion for such activities, as compared to $650 million in FY 2001.
  • Publicly recognized champions of democracy. The President personally met with over 100 activists and dissidents from dozens of “unfree” countries and directed U.S. ambassadors to seek and meet such activists in their postings. This included not only dissidents from autocratic regimes like Burma and Belarus, but also individuals from China, Pakistan, Russia, and even Spain.  Also, initiated legal funds and awards to recognize individuals, from the new Human Rights Defenders Fund to the Secretary of State’s Freedom Defenders Award and Diplomacy for Freedom Award.
  • Engaged in multilateral democracy promotion. Proposed and supported the UN Democracy Fund, launched an annual Roundtable on Democracy at the UN General Assembly, and supported the G-8’s Partnership for Progress and a Common Future for countries in the “Broader Middle East and North Africa” (BMENA).
  • Pressed “valued partners” like Egypt and Saudi Arabia to transition to free political systems. President Bush and his secretaries of state have met privately with foreign leaders and urged them to open their political systems to real competition as well as respect civil liberties and human rights.

More recently, the Administration broadened its reporting on the Freedom Agenda to include a broader array of initiatives that are integrated with democracy promotion, such as rational foreign aid, free trade, and humanitarian assistance.[10]  Specific examples include the following:

  • Smartened foreign aid strategies to focus on good governance, such as through the Millennium Challenge Accounts. The Millennium Challenge Corporation has provided $6.5 billion to 18 countries who meet stringent accountability criteria and commit via a compact to accountability.[11]
  • Promoted free trade. The Administration strongly advocated the Doha Round, implemented 11 new bilateral free trade agreements, and has pressed for others (e.g. Colombia).
  • Supported vital humanitarian aid. The President’s signature program was the AIDS program (Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief-PEPFAR), but the Administration also had initiatives on malaria, river blindness, and hookworm as well as has spent $1.8 million on food aid in 2007-2008.

Finally, many things are not mentioned in the fact sheets, such as support for democratic transitions and/or consolidation around the globe, including the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq, support for a two-state solution in the Middle East, and the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI).  Writing about MEPI, Wittes and Yerkes demonstrate that Administration had profoundly increased its attention and financial resources to promoting democracy in the broader Middle East, by consistent cultivation of this forum as well as supporting the G-8’s Broader Middle East and North Africa effort (BMENA).[12]

Moreover, in order to institutionalize the Freedom Agenda, President Bush signed a new classified national security presidential directive (NSPD-58) in July 2008.

Congress and the Freedom Agenda

One aspect of institutionalization of the Freedom Agenda that has largely gone unreported is the role of Capitol Hill.  Congress funds the Federal government, provides oversight and direction to the State Department and related agencies, and has been responsible in the recent past for major human rights and civil liberties legislation such as the Trafficking in Victims Protection Act of 2000 and the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.  What has been missed in the growing literature on the Bush Administration and the Freedom Agenda is how Congress has evolved on the issue, and come to support it.

We can best see this in how the 107th Congress gave little attention to democracy promotion in its fiscal year (FY) 2003 budget, and how that markedly changed over the subsequent five years.  The State Department Authorizations Act for FY 2003  (passed just a year after 9/11 as part of Public Law 107-228) “expressed the sense of the Congress that the budget for the [State Department’s] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor should be substantially increased,” but did not provide extra funding to that end.  Congress also established and funded a modest “Human Rights and Democracy Fund” administered by the Bureau to “support defenders of human rights” and “promote and encourage the growth of democracy…in other countries.”  That was all-two short paragraphs tucked into a massive authorization bill.

By 2005 a far more robust set of legislative options were promulgated by the Congress.  Senators John McCain (R) and Joe Lieberman (D) introduced the “Advance Democracy Act of 2005,” which was simultaneously presented in the House of Representatives by Tom Lantos (D) and Frank Wolfe (R).  Although the legislation did not proceed far in the 109th Congress, the original version of the Advance Democracy Act of 2005 would have instituted the following:

  • Spent approximately two pages defining and defending human liberty and representative government.
  • Declared that freedom and democracy in foreign countries is “a fundamental component of U.S. foreign policy.”
  • Elevated issues of democracy promotion by adding it to the title of an existing Under Secretary of State: the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs.
  • Created a new office of Democratic Movements and Transitions as well as Regional Democracy Hubs in U.S. missions in six regions.
  • Established a Democracy Promotion and Human Rights Advisory Board to advise the Secretary of State.
  • Called for a website reporting on democracy and human rights.
  • Required each embassy in non-democratic countries to develop a plan to promote democracy and support individuals and organizations committed to democratic ideas.
  • Provided monies for various funds on democracy promotion and human rights.
  • Expressed the “sense of the Congress” that the U.S. government should strengthen its ties to other democratic countries and multilateral institutions (e.g. the Community of Democracies).
  • Authorized an additional $250 million for democracy promotion over the next two years.

It is easy to gloss over the significance of this proposed piece of legislation.  The Advance Democracy Act was profound in declaring freedom and democracy as “fundamental components” of U.S. foreign policy, and for providing real tools for promoting democracy such as a sizable new financial investment, additional staff, and clear directives to U.S. missions.  All of this was in a text presented to Capitol Hill less than two months after the President’s Second Inaugural Address, clearly putting a large part of the Congress squarely in the President’s camp on this issue.  This was a clear victory for the Administration and added valuable resources to implementation of the Freedom Agenda.