EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial appears in the February 14, 2005, issue of National Review.
President Bush’s foreign policy has been, roughly, neoconservative in its aggressively idealistic expression and realist in its practical application. At no time has the dichotomy been more evident than during his inaugural speech and its immediate aftermath. The speech was beautiful, achingly idealistic, and at times almost totally unrestrained in its ambitious sweep. Of course, its grander pronouncements were not meant to set forth day-to-day policy. When has an inaugural address, the prose-poem of American politics, ever served that function? But the misunderstanding of the press corps was such that administration officials had immediately to give background briefings to say, “No, we aren’t going to cut off every undemocratic government on earth from relations with the United States.”
Although the most ringing lines understandably won the headlines, Bush’s speech contained many necessary qualifiers and caveats. His vision of democratic advance, he said, is “not primarily the task of arms.” He stated that “freedom, by its nature, must be chosen” and in other countries will “reflect customs and traditions very different from our own.” He stipulated that freedom’s spread around the globe is “the concentrated work of generations.” The emphasis wasn’t placed on these lines, because no speechwriter is ever going to write an address declaring, “Prudence, that indispensable guide to all human action, that magnificent faculty given to us by God to fix our conduct, will determine how we gradually spread our ideals through an ever-shifting mixture of diplomacy, foreign aid and trade, moral suasion, and force of arms.” But such is the true Bush policy (or what that policy tries to be).
The stirring pronouncements Bush made in his speech were firmly in the American tradition. Many of the lines could just as easily have been uttered by Truman, or JFK, or Reagan. American presidents since Wilson have almost all seen, or at least sold, U.S. foreign policy in idealistic terms of spreading freedom. The claims Bush made in the inaugural address about the God-granted dignity of the individual, the desirability of human freedom, and the American interest in the spread of benign government, are true. As Bush put it, the last four decades have been “defined by the swiftest advance of freedom ever.” The U.S. has been at the head of that advance, and should stay there.
Yet it must be said that some of Bush’s lines were too unmodulated to withstand a very close reading. “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.” Well, not quite. In the grubby world in which we actually live, no such total identification of our interests and ideals is possible. Our most vital interest is protecting the nation from another devastating terrorist attack (something the president declared to be his “most solemn duty”). That means, most fundamentally, killing and isolating Islamist fanatics, an imperative that must trump all others. We have military bases sprinkled through a range of nasty little Central Asian dictatorships–because having them there was so important to the war in Afghanistan. We eagerly prop up an authoritarian ruler in Pakistan who has displayed little or no interest in true liberalization, because he has been willing to chase and kill al-Qaeda members within his country. We have a close relationship to a Saudi regime that is the very picture of tyranny because it too is (after much arm-twisting) killing radicals in its country and, of course, because it has strategically crucial excess oil-production capacity.
“Success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people,” Bush said of foreign governments. But success in our relations depends on many things, and in the hierarchy of strategic values human rights cannot always top the list. The government of Uzbekistan has been undisturbed in its repression, as it offers us those military bases. We tolerate Egypt’s authoritarian regime–indeed subsidize it to the tune of $2 billion a year–because we want it to continue its cold peace with Israel. If China were to exert serious pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, that surely would inform how insistently we push it to stop repressing its own people.
“Eventually,” Bush declared, “the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul.” The qualifying word here is “eventually,” since in some parts of the world this call has not come to mind in all of human history. In some places–Saudi Arabia, for instance–political legitimacy stems not from individual choices made in elections, but from kinship ties and religious authority. That will change only very slowly. And liberty is not the spontaneous product of human longing, but a function of institutional and legal arrangements, and habits, that must be carefully fostered.
“The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” Bush said. In some of those lands, perhaps. But there are many countries of which it can be said that in no sense does American liberty depend on conditions there. Much of Africa languishes in unfreedom. Burma is lashed to a terrible tyranny. Tibet is brutally occupied. Haiti has never been decently governed. Bush’s pronouncement is more defensible when it comes to, say, Afghanistan. But even there it is not freedom that is quite the issue–any Afghan government that does not harbor and support a terrorist group bent on killing thousands or millions of Americans, the way the Taliban did, is consistent with the survival of American liberty.
This is the nub: Spreading freedom is more strategically important in some areas than in others. Just as Reagan, when speaking broadly about the spread of freedom, had foremost in mind the dissolution of a Soviet empire that threatened the U.S., Bush is mainly concerned with bringing a measure of freedom to the Middle East. This is important for several reasons. First, to eliminate an axis of anti-Americanism and religious radicalism that has defined the region for the last two decades. Second, to isolate the al-Qaeda ideology. It must be defeated not just by military means, but by being politically discredited. We can’t do that alone: Arabs and Muslims can make the case with more credibility than we can that radicalism is a dead end. Iraq is now at the forefront of this debate. Arrayed on one side are Allawi, Sistani, and other Iraqis who want to embrace aspects of modernity, such as democratic elections. On the other is the mad bomber and bin Laden acolyte Zarqawi, who opposes the legitimate aspirations of the Iraqi people. On this fight hinge both the immediate fate of freedom in the Middle East and U.S. security.
Let us return to the example of Reagan. He too spoke with passion about the spread of freedom around the globe and harbored unrealistic visions–in his case, the elimination of all nuclear weapons. As it turned out, he fell short of these dreams. For the most part, he “only” spread freedom to the Soviet empire and some of its Third World outposts. And in collapsing the Soviets, he “only” made the threat of nuclear armageddon a thing of the past instead of abolishing nuclear arms altogether. But in those accomplishments he made the world a better place and the U.S. safer. If Bush “only” begins to transform the Middle East, he too will have an honored place in the history books. And the debate over his inaugural speech will seem so much nit-picking.