Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees

John O'Sullivan offers a hybrid foreign policy realist/idealist analysis of President Bush's speech and notes that too many couldn't see the qualifier trees for the idealistic forest of freedom outlined by the President.
President Bush's inaugural declaration of a foreign policy rooted in spreading liberty has received an early and strong boost from the large turnout in the Iraqi elections. The crude objection to it that the Arabs are either hostile to democracy, or even merely indifferent to it, has been decisively routed by the civic bravery of the Iraqi voters. And the 'democracy project' looks consequently more, well, more realistic than it did a week ago.

But when all about you are losing their heads, as Kipling notes, is the very time to keep a cool head yourself. We should therefore turn a cautious eye on the president's speech. And when we do, we discover that the cool head of Ramesh Ponnuru got it right first time. As he told viewers of CNN's Capital Gang, George Bush was somewhat too eloquent for his own good.

Many listeners thought they had heard the president announce that it was henceforth the policy of the United States to overthrow tyrants and establish democracy everywhere by return of post. So powerful was this impression that the following day 'a senior administration official' was wheeled out to explain that there had been no change in U.S. foreign policy and that the president was not proposing to spread democracy by military force. Mr. Bush similarly qualified himself in a press conference a few days later.

Nor were they 'retreating' or reneging. Mr. Bush's original promise to support democracy abroad had been hedged about with qualifications: It would be the work of several generations, not one administration. It was not primarily a 'task of arms.' Freedom could not be imposed on other countries by the U.S. We would merely help them to achieve it. It would inevitably reflect their distinctive traditions and end up looking very different from our own democracy. And so on and so forth.

Alas, these prudent qualifications were obscured by his soaring rhetorical promises to advance liberty and democracy throughout the world. This was, said Mr. Bush, "the urgent requirement of our nation's security and the calling of our time." Indeed, the "ultimate goal" of U.S. foreign policy was "ending tyranny in our world."

. . . Neither the U.S. nor any other country, however idealistic, can be expected to intervene militarily against its own interests or when it has no real interests at stake. It is immoral as well as unrealistic to encourage others to rebel by promises of intervention we cannot keep. And, except in the most extreme cases of genocide, etc., our ideals are too abstract an interest to justify putting the lives of our soldiers at risk — though they may justify lesser forms of influence and diplomatic intervention.

Iraq is a special case. By invading the country, we took on the responsibility of establishing a stable, decent and (if possible) democratic government there. Such a government now looks distinctly possible, and we should therefore remain as long as necessary to ensure it secure establishment.

As the president's qualifications hinted, however, the U.S. does not intend to intervene militarily elsewhere to advance its democratic agenda. Lesser but still powerful forms of pressure — imposing trade penalties on regimes that jail and torture dissidents, offering a safe haven to despots who agree to go quietly, giving training and technical assistance to free media in authoritarian states that permit some freedoms, and orchestrating international opposition to the more brutal regimes — are likely to be our principal instruments of policy.

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