Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the Times of London yeseterday that president George W. Bush was wrong to try to bring democracy to Iraq. “I’m not one who thinks that our particular template of democracy is appropriate for other countries at every moment their histories,” the British newspaper quoted him. This is a momentous concession: the Republican Party continues to drag the Bush legacy around with it like the chains of Marley’s Ghost, and a repudiation of Bush’s core policy by a member of his inner circle is something of a sea-change.

Evidently Rumsfeld has changed his mind. A Defense Department press release of Aug. 27, 2004, quotes the then Defense Secretary as follows:

Many scoffed at the United States after World War II for trying to mold Germany, Italy and Japan into democracies, Rumsfeld told the Marines and sailors. But through persistence and example that change was made, and now those three countries are among the world’s staunchest democratic allies, he said. “It will not be an easy transition to democracy in Afghanistan or Iraq,” he said. “It think it was Thomas Jefferson who said of our own transition that one should not expect to be transported to democracy in a featherbed. It is a tough thing to do.”

Of course, back in 2004 George W. Bush was on a mission from God to bring democracy to the Middle East as part of what he called a “world democratic revolution,” and Secretary Rumsfeld was a loyal team player. I do not know whether Rumsfeld is telling us what he always believed but was reluctant to say, or whether he has changed his views. Many top Bush officials have not.

Recently (for example) I talked with a former top Bush administration official at an off-the-record function, The senior official said, “We in the Bush administration had great hopes for Muslim democracy,” and added that he was disappointed that the Muslim Brotherhood was thrown out of power by the Egyptian military so quickly. “We would have liked to see how the Muslim Brotherhood did when it had to take responsibility for garbage removal,” said the official. That is just what George W. Bush said in March 2006 about Hezbollah’s entry into Lebanon’s politics:

Our policy is this: We want there to be a thriving democracy in Lebanon. We believe that there will be a thriving democracy, but only if – but only if – Syria withdraws … her troops completely out of Lebanon … I like the idea of people running for office. There’s a positive effect when you run for office. Maybe some will run for office and say, vote for me, I look forward to blowing up America. I don’t know, I don’t know if that will be their platform or not. But it’s – 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, or making sure you got bread on the table.

It was looney in Lebanon and deranged in Egypt. “When General al-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood [in July 2013],” I protested to the senior official, “Egypt had two weeks of wheat supplies on hand. It was at immediate risk of starvation!” That probably explained why the majority of Egypt’s adult population turned out for demonstrations demanding the overthrow of the Morsi governent. The official thought for a moment and said, “I guess that experiment would have been tough on the ordinary Egyptian.” This conversation preceded the official’s luncheon speech, during which he repeated verbatim the line about garbage removal.

Unlike the Bourbons, who learned nothing and forget nothing, George W. Bush and many who served under him have learned nothing while suffering from amnesia. It is impossible to argue with such people, because they believe in world betterment as a matter of religion–specifically, the Social Gospel that took over Mainline Protestantism early in the 20th century, as Joseph Bottum explained in a 2014 book, The Rise of Secular Religion. The Wilsonian outlook of the Bush administration (as the senior official cited above characterized it) blended with the neo-conservatives’ confidence in “classical political rationalism” to produce one of the most gigantic blunders in the history of American foreign policy.

It wasn’t simply that democracy failed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that the US spent $1 trillion dollars on a wild goose chase. The senior official allowed that our concentration on immediate operational requirements in the region forced a drastic cut in investment in military R&D, allowing China (for example) to close the technology gap with the United States. The United States can complain all it wants about China’s territorial assertions in the South China Sea, but China now has surface-to-ship missiles as well as quiet diesel-electric submarines than can sink an American aircraft carrier. To project power in the Asia, the United States still relies on technologies that ruled the waves in the Reagan area, but now serve largely for show. That makes a shooting war between the US and China extremely unlikely, the former senior official allowed, simply because the US does not have the means to fight a war close to China’s coast.

Whatever Donald Rumsfeld might be thinking, his desultory takedown of Bush 41’s blunders offers an opportunity to rethink a failed foreign policy.

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