Monday, January 24, 2005

Thoughts on . . . that speech

Funny how a little ole speech can cause such a stir, but it looks like President Bush's second inaugural has inspired hundreds of thousands of words of commentary in just a few short days. So what's another couple of thousand?

Let's get this out of the way. I liked the speech. As I watched President Bush deliver it I thought to myself that this was his finest speech. And upon reading it the prose strikes me as inspired and thoughtful, an expression of the highest ideals of the American president. And like most my ears perked up at these words :
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.
So rarely have so few words had such impact. Immediately a hue and cry rang out as critics bemoaned the silly idealism, this expansionist empire-driving sentiment that shall push this country to the brink of doom. "This pure Wilsonianism," was the basic refrain, and that was not meant to be a compliment.

There was certainly much complaint from the left. That's not exactly a surprise. At this point George Bush could praise the merits of kittens, and he would be mocked for ignoring the benefits of puppies, and the left would claim that Bush was being cajoled by his evil neocon advisers to establish a catocracy. So be it.

And of course there was the usual from the splendid isolationists on the far right, those merry paleoconservatives who creep further into their caves like Gollum. "They stole it from us yes, the precious, those nasty, filthy neocons, they stole the conservative movement. Hissssssssssss."

The irrelevancy of this particular brand of conservatism is highlighted more and more as they wallow in their own hypocrisy. Though they call Bush and his "neocon" fellow travelers apostates for their desire to expand American influence through the force of arms, they ignore their own Cold War pars. Jonah Goldberg helpfully points up one aspect of their hypocrisy.
This formulation will no doubt stick in the craws of self-described “paleoconservatives” who claim to be the heirs of the “real” conservative movement and who pull their hair and rend their clothes in protest of Bush’s allegedly “neoconservative” radicalism. They might remind themselves that “hawkishness” in the name of liberty was the principle that birthed the conservative movement. The supposed “isolationists” these “paleos” celebrate were calling for “rollback, not containment” of the Red Menace long before the “neocons” were called hawks for wanting to increase funding for the National Endowment for Democracy. Some even endorsed the notion that nuclear annihilation was worth the price of liberty.
Moreover, while these paleos claim to be the high priests of conservatism, faithfully guarding the true tenets of all that is conservative, they have no problem ignoring the traditional conservative aversion to plebiscitary democracy. Thus, while they label as unconservative the attempt to spread democracy abroad, they have willingly adopted a populist ideology that would let the people rule almost absolutely. They have in the past twenty-five years energetically praised the use of referenda in order to achieve their policy goals. Their embrace of direct democracy and its subsequent diminishment of representative republicanism hardly speaks well of their supposed zealous guardianship of all that is truly conservative.

But it not merely the paleocon right that has criticized the speech. Writers as varied as David Frum, Peggy Noonan, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Peter Robinson have questioned Bush's high-fallutin idealism, though Robinson changed his mind a bit after chatting with Hugh Hewitt. The basic argument is that Bush is being too idealistic and, yes, Wilsonian in his rhetoric. He is naively hoping to bring democracy to a region that may not be ready for it, and, moreover, even if democracy can be implanted, it no guarantee of stability.

Another line of critiqe runs more along these lines: Who are we to decide to go on this little rampage promising liberty to the world? Such argumentation is utilized all over the political spectrum (out there, not this political spectrum, or at least not all of it). Fareed Zakaria penned such sentiment, noting America's failure to deal, both in the past and present, harshly with dictatorial regimes. Certain others have made the inevitable Abu Ghraib argument: hey, how can the perpetrators of that atrocity make a moral argument for advancing the cause of human liberty. Because, as we all know, certain idiotic soldiers have forever disqualified the United States from claiming the moral high ground for all time. Let's forget about the 300,000 dead carcasses piled up in Saddam's mass tombs; soldiers forcing Muslim men to strip naked is of couse an equally morally abhorent act. And because we did precious little to stop Central American armies from abusing communist rebels a quarter-century ago, we are forever banned from even hinting at exporting our values.

Forgive me while I go off on a side rant about such moral equivalence. Hey, while we're at it, let's post pictures of burned out German houses after we bombed the entire county for an entire year in 1945. After all, if we kill even one innocent person it makes us no better than the people who intentionally slaughter their own citizens. And Lord knows thinking about partially privatizing social security is a vicious act of tyranny that should by itself prevent George Bush from even talking about spreading democracy.

That aside, most of the concern over Bush's rhetoric is not unwarrented. There is something that sounds a tad naive in believing that we can simply solve all of our own problems if people in the Middle East cast a ballot. But such a sentiment is silly in and of itself because it incorrectly assesses what it is Bush is exactly trying to do. It's not a mere matter of hoping free elections are going to keep us safe for the rest of eternity. It is a recognition of the fact that at least some of the turmoil in that region of the world stems from the dictatorial tyranny that prevents most of the individuals from experiencing anything resembling human freedom. It is a sad commentary on Middle East governments that the country in which Arabs arguably experience the greatest amount of liberty is Israel, a nation that we must confess does not have an unblemished record. But would you rather be a Muslim gentleman in Israel or Saudi Arabia? It's a pretty close call. I might go with the former.

Hugh Hewitt, among others, has commented that one must look beyond the rhetoric of the one paragraph of the speech highlighted above. Bush is not proposing a policy whereby we march in and out of every country to install democratic regimes. What he is proposing is the dismantling of so-called "realist" foreign policy ideology, an approach that permitted us to cozy up to armed dictators all too willingly just so we can keep up the appearance of stability.

And to be sure we will unfortunately have to continue dealing for some time with hard-line regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, at least in the immediate future. Realist foreign policy has thus not completely been cast aside - nor should it. Hopeless idealism, the bane of the neoconservative ideology, is not necessarily a fit alternative to it. In some ways the wave of the future, ideoligically speaking, may require some balance to the two ways of thinking. We must cast our sights on higher values, but but we must remain grounded in real-world developments. We can put pressure on "friendly" authoritarian regimes in the hopes that they will slowly liberalize over time. Bush's foreign policy vision is not one that will be implemented overnight. It will take time, and will require patience. But it also requires persistence.

As to whether or not liberalization will breed security, the answer is, yes. It is perhaps saying too much to claim that all our problems are rooted in authoritarianism, but if the next generation of Middle Easterners can be brought into a world where they have fuller control of their own destinies, than I do believe it can ease the tensions that breed terrorism. Of course, that will not be enough. So much more will be involved, including an aggressive campaign against terrorist cells, a revampment of our intelligence gathering capabilities, and other military reforms. We will have to combine militarism with advocacy, guns with words.

It is also true that, as Mouldfan wrote a few days back, democracy is no panacea. We cannot simply hope that democracy will lead to liberty. After all, there is a fine line between liberty and licence, and pure democracy often breeds the latter. Thus we must work with developing democracies so that they create a democratic regime that primarily respects the liberties of all its citizens. Easier said than done, you say. True, but the difficulty of such a task ought not be an excuse to not even attempt it.

Much of this is agonizingly abstract, and I believe that is what bugs conservatives so. If we can bring this discussion back to the more narrow issue of the conservatism (or lack thereof) of Bush's foreign policy vision, I would suggest that a few too many conservatives are themselves too narrowly wedded to an abstract ideal that is no longer fit for this rule. Breathless exhortations and warnings about "entangling alliances" no longer run true when a terrorist might easily plop a dirty bomb in New York City, Washington, or Atlanta. Conservatives are called upon to adapt, and the need for change is noted by no less a conservative than the father of them all, Edmund Burke.

It should also be noted that though this Nation is grounded much more in the ideology of Burke than that of Rousseau, conservatives run the risk of sounding uninformed if they do not acknowledge the radical nature of what took place between 1776-1787. Alexander Hamilton, a model of conservative sentiment, discussed the new science of politics being born in the American republic. Conservative radicalism may be an oxymoron, but it is the guiding principle of this nation. Few was the Founder who did not envision the United States as a beacon for other nations to follow as the shining example of political freedom. Almost to a man all believed that the United States would spur a world-wide revolution of liberty, and we have repeated that theme for two centuries. Part idealistic and part arrogant, the vision of a shining city on the hill being a beacon of hope to the rest of the world is an eternal part of the American imagination. While it has times blinded us to some of our own shameful actions, it has also ignited us to do greater things. Conservatives would do well to bear in mind our own history and not write into it a splendid isolationism that never did really exist.

Pragmatism and idealism often do not go hand in hand, and admittedly an individual of conservative temprament should be cautious about the semi-messianic idealism of our President. But we should also embrace the ideal and seek to achieve through practical means the ideals recently announced.


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