November 10, 2003,
Bush's speech was the latest effort by the administration to stop the slipping support for the U.S. occupation of Iraq at home and abroad. Though he had previously mentioned the spread of Mideast democracy as a justification for the invasion of Iraq, Bush elevated that rationale to primacy yesterday, making no mention of weapons of mass destruction and only passing reference to national security and terrorism.Could this be so? Has President Bush somehow done a Woodrow Wilson makeover? Has the president changed the rationale of the war from defending the United States from terrorism to a selfless "crusade" for democracy? Well, not exactly. Bush's argument in his landmark address before the National Endowment of Democracy on Thursday was in fact far more interesting and challenging than reported.
His argument has been largely misunderstood because it draws upon an almost-forgotten foreign-policy tradition in America one that is neither strictly "realist" nor "idealist." Bush's speech hearkens back to the "idealistic realism" of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge. The case President Bush made is not the Wilsonian one of making the world safe for democracy. Rather, his abiding concern, as was TR's, is to make the world safe for the United States.
Here's what Bush said: He pointed out that 60 years of a cold, calculating "realism" in our foreign policy towards the Middle East one that accommodated despots as long as they were on "our side" made the country neither safe nor served our national interest. Now, in making this acknowledgment, Bush was hardly offering a Clinton-like apology for past wrongs committed by the United States. He was simply pointing out that the old policy in the Mideast had failed to deliver. It was, one might say, not at all realistic about the true agenda of all those "friendly" kings, princes, and strongmen who currently rule over the Arab world. Authoritarian states like Iraq and Saudi Arabia, no matter how much oil they might sell us, do not serve our genuine national interests. There can be no community of concern between democrats and non-democrats. As Bush put it, "in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of...violence ready for export."
Bush is an idealist of sorts. He sincerely wants to share the blessings of liberty with the Arab word. And he believes liberty is for all peoples, not just for the culturally fortunate. As he said, echoing Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, "We believe that liberty is the design of nature." In other words, freedom is everywhere and always desired. It is not culturally and historically conditioned. However, Bush has set the country on the course of democracy-promotion in the Middle East less for the sake of the Arab peoples (though it's certainly the right thing to do) than for our own safety and security.
True enough, he made scarcely any mention of weapons of mass destruction and terrorists in his address. But these dangers did not go exactly unexamined. Securing democracy in Iraq and the Middle East is, he declared, "worth our effort, it is worth our sacrifice, because we know the stakes. The failure of Iraqi democracy would embolden terrorists around the world, increas[ing] dangers to the American people." In September 11 was to be found a great horror, but also the premonition of much worse to come.
Do the American people agree with the president? Do they see the "stakes" as he sees them? According to a recent CNN-USA Today-Gallup Poll, 54 percent of respondents disapprove of the president's policy in Iraq. Meanwhile, the Democrats smell blood in the water. Many opposed Bush's $87 billion aid package for Iraq, and most of the Democratic candidates running in the primaries favor a rapid withdrawal from Iraq. They have turned their backs even on Wilsonian idealism to embrace instead the deep and self-defeating pessimism of George McGovern and Jimmy Carter. The election next year will very likely be a referendum on the Iraq war and Bush's foreign policy of democracy promotion in the Middle East.
One should not underestimate the obstacles to Bush's foreign-policy aims: The most difficult of these begin not in Iraq's Sunni "triangle" but at home. Can the president convince enough Americans that his is the best course of action? Securing democracy in Iraq alone will require at least a second Bush term in order to see through the policy. The victory of a Democrat in 2004 would likely mean an American withdrawal from Iraq or handing the problem over to the United Nations hardly a friend of democracy or America's best interests. Unlike during much of the Cold War, when it could reasonably be expected that a change of administrations would not mean a radical change in the policy of containment, there is no bipartisan consensus in the post-9/11 world.
The perils are great indeed. The war in Iraq was launched in the name of American security, but it was also inevitably a promissory note of sorts to the Iraqi people: for a better, freer life, and more decent, representative government. To pull out of Iraq before this is accomplished would be to break this promise, and to turn Iraq over to the terrorists bent on America's destruction.
Thus Bush's most-urgent task is the creation of a bipartisan consensus on the fundamentals of his Mideast policy. Such a consensus cannot be formulated in Washington, D.C. by striking deals with the likes of Senator Ted Kennedy or horse-trading one program for another. A bipartisan consensus must start not from above, but be built from the ground up. It must be rooted in a broad and abiding public opinion.
The 2004 election will be the most momentous at least since 1980 when Americans chose Reagan's defense build up over four more years of drift and appeasement under Carter. Just as Reagan became a shaper of public opinion, so too must Bush. Only in doing so can he insure that the new policy he calls "a forward strategy of freedom" will endure in the years and decades ahead, whether a Democrat or a Republican is in charge. These are the stakes.
Adam Wolfson is editor of The Public Interest.