The Academic Freedom Agenda
The New York Times Magazine 
By James Traub 

WHEN A MARINE HELICOPTER bore George W. Bush away from the Capitol the afternoon of Jan. 20, the American people turned their attention, and desperate hopes, to his successor. Bush, meanwhile, moved into a new home in Dallas and took up the work of his post-presidency. He had often said that he viewed the Freedom Agenda — his campaign to promote democracy around the world, and above all in the Middle East — as the great legacy of his time in office. And now, even as Obama and his foreign-policy team edge away from the language of democracy promotion, which they fear that the Freedom Agenda has rendered toxic, Bush has begun to shape what he has called the Freedom Institute, a policy center to be housed alongside his presidential library and museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University. The institute is scheduled to begin operating in the fall; the former president and members of the George W. Bush Foundation are now scouting for an executive director.

Bush left office with the lowest poll ratings recorded in 60 years of presidents, but he is still regarded with reverence and fondness in Dallas, where he lived for many years before becoming president. One ZIP code in Highland Park, the neighborhood adjacent to S.M.U., gave more money per capita to Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign than any other ZIP code in the nation. The day after Obama’s inauguration, the lawns of Highland Park’s neoeverything palazzi were festooned with signs reading, “Welcome Home, George and Laura,” and bearing an image of the flag of Texas. And S.M.U., long a finishing school for the children of Dallas money, is the closest thing to a Bushworld alma mater: George didn’t go, but Laura did, and she still sits on the board, along with Ray Hunt, of the oil fortune, and a great many other Bush loyalists and benefactors. Board members and administrators began angling to host the presidential complex, which they saw as a terrific boon to S.M.U.’s rising reputation, virtually from the day George Bush was elected. According to Jeanne Phillips, a board member and senior vice-president for international relations at Hunt Consolidated, not only her colleagues but also people all over Dallas thought, “Our guy is president!”

But George Bush is not everyone’s guy on the S.M.U. campus. Indeed, the prospect of being identified in perpetuity with the Freedom Agenda freezes the blood of some of the university’s leading academics. Everything about the planned institute reminds them of what they detested about the Bush administration. It will proselytize rather than explore: a letter sent to universities bidding for the Bush center stipulated that the institute would, among other things, “further the domestic and international goals of the Bush administration.” And it will hold itself apart from S.M.U.’s own world of academic inquiry, reporting to the Bush Foundation itself rather than to the university president or provost, as academic institutes — even presidential ones — normally do.

To critics, then, the institute sounds like a walled preserve within which the strange ideological growths of the Bush era will proliferate — with S.M.U.’s good name affording them intellectual legitimacy. “You can be sure that there will be a book on the privatization of Social Security,” predicts Thomas Knock, a professor of American history, “or on creationism, or on the doctrine of pre-emptive war.” He and others are half-convinced that Bush will appoint his friend Karl Rove as the first executive director.

KAREN HUGHES, President Bush’s longtime aide and confidante, told me that Bush started kicking around ideas for some kind of think tank soon after he was re-elected in November 2004. “We knew it would focus on freedom and responsibility,” she said, for Bush saw these as his twin themes, and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks persuaded him that weak and authoritarian states, like Afghanistan, posed a grave threat to American security. It’s easy to see why, at the time she and the president began their post-presidency conversations, Bush and those around him would have felt that their commitment to democracy promotion would constitute a lasting legacy. In late 2004 and early 2005, Iraqis dipped their index fingers in purple ink and bravely cast their ballots; the people of Lebanon took to the streets to protest the assassination of the popular leader Rafik Hariri and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt agreed to allow the first contested presidential race in that country’s history. Natan Sharansky, the Soviet dissident and Israeli political leader, praised Bush at an Oval Office meeting as “a real dissident” who believed in democratizing the Middle East. And in his second inaugural speech, Bush grandly declared that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands” — the central axiom of the Freedom Agenda.

Though his father had established a degree-granting graduate school at Texas A&M, Bush 43 wanted to devote his post-presidential career to advancing the causes dearest to him. And he “liked the idea of himself being able to engage fellows and scholars,” recalls Donald Evans, an old friend who served as commerce secretary in his first term. In early 2005, Bush and a few advisers began to visit places that might serve as a model for the planned institute, including the Hoover Institution, at Stanford, one of the nation’s most important right-leaning academic centers. John Raisian, Hoover’s director, told me that the president came to see him for a long conversation; he also conducted about half a dozen talks in person and by phone with Evans and Rove. All three men, Raisian said, asked him about the relationship between the institute and the university. Hoover, though substantially autonomous in its day-to-day operations, is ultimately responsible to the president of Stanford.

Raisian said that he spoke to all of them about the “delicate” bond of trust between an institute and its host university. Raisian recalls explaining to Bush, “If you’re not part of the university, you can be your own entity right across the street; but you can’t wear its badge, if that was important to you.” Raisian was struck by the fact that Bush, Evans and Rove were apprehensive about the kind of relationship that obtained at Hoover and at other presidential institutes. He “was just nervous that the scholarly appointees of the institute would have to be cleared by either the administration or the faculty of S.M.U.,” Raisian said. The president was “musing about what the alternatives were.” And he found one: When the Bush Foundation issued a request for proposals in July 2005, it sought a home for a library and a museum, as was expected, and for a policy institute to be “separately managed” by the foundation.

S.M.U., like most major universities, already has plenty of institutes, but they are typically bound by academic principles and by university governance. That was why Raisian had said that Bush would have to either accept those strictures or forgo the university’s imprimatur. But the Bush Foundation wanted it both ways. R. Gerald Turner, S.M.U.’s president and an ardent supporter of the project, says that after he received the bid solicitation, he called Donald Evans, who had become co-chairman of the foundation, and said, “Can any of these parts be differentiated?” Evans replied, “No, it’s a unit.”

When I asked why the foundation insisted on controlling the institute, I received a range of answers. (Bush declined to be interviewed for this article.) Mark Langdale, president of the Bush Foundation, told me the president and his advisers “wanted an environment that is free of campus politics,” though of what nature he didn’t specify. Turner, S.M.U.’s president, explained about as carefully as was humanly possible, “They wanted to make sure that all points of view, including their own point of view, have a chance to be expressed.” Donald Evans said it was a matter of fiduciary responsibility. “If I’m going to ask someone to be supportive of this with their generous contribution,” he said, “I need to able to tell them that I will be fully responsible to them.” It seems, however, from Raisian’s recollections, that an administration notoriously distrustful of academia — at least liberal academia — and doggedly certain of its own principles did not want to subject itself to the intellectual standards of whatever university would serve as its host, even one as relatively conservative as S.M.U.

BY 2006, when the Bush Foundation was preparing to choose a home for the presidential complex, the Freedom Agenda had come to feel less like a legacy than a misbegotten, and abandoned, crusade. Iraq had spiraled downward into sectarian slaughter. President Mubarak supported free parliamentary elections until opposition parties began to make gains, at which time he sent in his thugs; hundreds of activists and ordinary voters were beaten, and about 20 killed. In January 2006, the extremists of Hamas soundly defeated the relatively moderate forces of Fatah in Palestinian legislative elections that had been championed by Washington. The president thereafter pulled back from the ambitious language of the second inaugural, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began lining up autocratic allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia against a resurgent Iran. Lorne Craner, a former Bush State Department official and now the president of the International Republican Institute, a democracy-promotion body, told me, “I have come to look at the Inaugural Address as the culmination of something, not the announcement of something.”

Some members of the S.M.U. community, who had not found the prospect of housing the Bush center terribly appealing in mid-2005, now viewed it with horror. In November 2006, William McElvaney, a United Methodist minister and former faculty member, now retired, at S.M.U.’s Perkins School of Theology, and a younger colleague, Susanne Johnson, wrote an article in The Daily Campus, the school paper, that bluntly asked: “Do we want S.M.U. to benefit financially from a legacy of massive violence, destruction and death brought about by the Bush presidency in dismissal of broad international opinion?” Still, many faculty members did not share McElvaney and Johnson’s view of the Bush administration; and others who did were not prepared to simply reject so prestigious a facility. Thomas Knock, a leading scholar of Woodrow Wilson, has done some of his most important research work in presidential libraries and archives. Whatever he thought about the Bush presidency, he says, “A presidential library could only be a positive thing for a university.” And he could accept a policy institute.
In December 2006 the foundation announced, to no one’s surprise, that it was focusing on S.M.U. And only then did it become fully clear that the board of the institute would report not to the university but to the Bush Foundation — and thus that S.M.U. would not be able to control its programs or political impulses. As Benjamin Johnson, another historian, puts it, “The Bush circle has done so much damage to every institution they’ve touched, it would be naïve not to worry about the damage they could do to S.M.U.”

So the battle over the proposed complex was joined. In early 2007, faculty members on both sides of the issue conducted a very public debate in the pages of The Daily Campus, in the Dallas newspapers and elsewhere (including in The New York Times). President Turner and his chief administrators met with the faculty in the hope of assuaging these and other concerns; they didn’t succeed. The drama reached its climax at a meeting of the normally sedate Faculty Senate two years ago. Opponents proposed a resolution calling on S.M.U. to choose one of two options: either insist that the institute forswear its partisan ambitions and accept S.M.U. governance, or require the institute to remove itself from the campus and disclaim an affiliation with the university. The final vote was a 13-13 tie.

A tie vote meant that the resolution failed, thus precluding the grave consequences of which administrators had warned. The memory of that excruciating moment seems to have faded: board members and Bush Foundation officials informed me that only a few malcontents had expressed misgivings about the institute. The controversy has died down as opponents resign themselves to the inevitable. But the institute remains a source of neuralgia. A few days before I arrived on campus, an article in the local paper revealed that according to early plans from the architect Robert A. M. Stern, the institute would be in the same collegiate Georgian structure as the library and museum. The buildings were supposed to be separate. This had become such a sensitive matter that when Mark Langdale showed me the plans, he insisted that they showed two distinct structures “jammed together like town houses.”

THE BUSH CENTER is still four years from completion, but the institute is to begin operating from temporary quarters off-campus by the end of the year. Bush’s friends and associates say that he is eager to invite the dissidents whom he made a point of meeting throughout his presidency — Natan Sharansky, the Russian activist Garry Kasparov and other such figures from China, Venezuela or the Middle East. Elliott Abrams, who had a controversial tenure in the Reagan administration and who led the democracy-promotion bureau in Bush’s National Security Council, says that Bush “met with more democracy activists and dissidents than any other president.” Bush identified deeply with these lonely champions of principle, and by the end of his time in office had come to regard himself as a dissident, as Sharansky had called him. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a prominent Egyptian democracy activist, says that Bush described himself as “a fellow dissident” when he met with a group of activists in Prague in 2007. “Everybody laughed,” Ibrahim recalls. The president explained that the Congress, the news media and the bureaucracy wanted to preserve the status quo; he was an outnumbered minority in his own government.

Abrams and others say Bush hopes his institute will provide a platform for such embattled figures. Bush has spoken of offering a place for Vaclav Havel, the dissident hero and former president of the Czech Republic, to write his next book. Karen Hughes says that Bush might want to provide an opportunity for training and study to officials from nascent democracies, or AIDS doctors who work in the developing world, or women’s-rights activists from Afghanistan. And with the foundation hoping to raise more than $300 million — though the lion’s share will go to the library — the institute is likely to become an attractive destination.

But it’s far from clear that Bush’s deep feeling for these brave men and women is fully requited. On the advice of Carl Gershman, the president of the National Endowment for Democracy and a leading supporter of the Freedom Agenda, I talked to Wang Tiancheng, a Chinese legal activist who spoke with Bush last year after receiving the endowment’s annual Democracy Award on behalf of two imprisoned colleagues in China. I asked Wang, who is now doing research at Columbia University, what he felt the president had accomplished, and he said, “He did very little in terms of human rights in China — almost nothing.” For Bush, he said, as for his predecessors, trade trumped human rights — as did cooperation on terrorism, energy and a range of other issues. (Not true, Abrams says; pressure from the Bush administration caused the Chinese to release a number of political prisoners.)

It is in the Middle East that the Freedom Agenda had its greatest ambitions — and it is there where the sense of failure is most marked. Last winter, Marina Ottaway, a leading authority on democracy promotion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote that “the Bush administration’s Freedom Agenda — an undertaking rich in rhetoric and bombast and poor on substance — has been an unqualified disaster. It has not helped bring about change in the region, but it has undermined U.S. credibility.”

Few have experienced the vagaries of the Freedom Agenda so personally as Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who was released from an Egyptian jail thanks partly to pressure from the administration, who met with both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and who courted criticism at home by openly welcoming Bush’s call for a democratic opening. In retrospect, says Ibrahim, the Freedom Agenda “made rulers in the region realize that democracy is the only way to legitimacy.” Nevertheless, his judgment is every bit as damning as Ottaway’s. At first, he says, he and his fellow activists were “energized” by Bush’s sweeping language; then they felt “disillusioned” by “the speedy retreat” after the Hamas victory; and finally, they came to feel, he said, “betrayed” when they found that they had sacrificed their credibility to a halfhearted and largely rhetorical campaign. Bush’s defenders say that he pushed Mubarak as hard as he could, though Lorne Craner is far from alone in arguing that the Freedom Agenda had slackened by 2006.

Mark Langdale, director of the foundation, corrected me when I asked him about the Freedom Institute. “We may not call it that,” he said. The current front-runner was “The George W. Bush Policy Institute.” Langdale, a hotel developer and an old Bush friend, insisted that the original name had led to some unintentional misunderstandings. “Freedom also means freedom from disease, free trade, the freedom to be educated,” he explained. In fact, Langdale said, initial programming might involve education reform — a rather remote item on the Freedom Agenda. You get the distinct impression of strategic recalibration in the face of controversy. In one of his exit interviews, the president insisted that the proposed institute would not be “George Bush’s wonderful place” but rather “a place were smart people come and debate issues and talk about issues.”

Even Turner, S.M.U.’s president, is hedging his bets. He expects there to be an “adjustment period” during which the institute may feel a little bit like George Bush’s wonderful place but that over time, “Bush’s views will become irrelevant.” That may be; the Hoover Institution eventually outgrew its namesake. But since the process took half a century, and involved some very ugly battles with Stanford, that may not be the most encouraging precedent.

Right now, skeptical faculty members and enthusiastic administrators alike are looking to the foundation’s choice of executive director as a signal of its intentions. Turner told me he is hoping that the foundation chooses someone who will “have the support of the Bush family, but also the academic credentials” — a Condi Rice figure. When I mentioned these expectations to Donald Evans, there was a silence at the other end of the line; perhaps he was deciding how reassuring he cared to be. Finally, he said, “I am confident that we’ll choose an individual whom all sides will be pleased with.” It could be a long adjustment period.

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