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May 19, 2005

Bush: Betting On Democracy

What will history make of The Shrub?

He has been called every name in the book. Gee Dumbya, The Twig, Bu$Hitler, peeResident Evil, the Chimperor-in-Chief, cowboy, reckless unilateralist, liar, arrogant imperialist. The sobriquets hurled at this one man are so many and varied that even his admirers (like the half-vast editorial staff) can't help adopting them, tongue-in-cheek. But how will history view him?

We see through a glass, darkly. Current events whiz by us at so blinding a pace that it is hard to put things into perspective. Few of us have the command of history that would allow us to step back and see the panoramic view - to see today's news story as just another piece in the jigsaw puzzle. To find where it fits in the overall pattern of history and snap it into place: there.

Historian John Lewis Gaddis has been doing just that; looking at George Bush's place in history, weighing his policies and actions against those of previous administrations. He recently gave a speech at Middlebury College. He begins with an anecdote that must have surprised listeners used to seeing Bush as an insular, stubborn man who never reads and won't entertain criticism of his policy.

Gaddis was called to the White House by Condoleeza Rice, who said the President had just finished Gaddis' latest book and loved it. Moreover, he had asked his staff to read it, too. Puzzled, Gaddis leafed through the book to see what he'd said about the President:

I said that he had “failed miserably” in getting United Nations support for the invasion of Iraq.

I said that his solutions to complex problems tended to be “breathtakingly simple.”

I said that the phrase “axis of evil” originated “in overzealous speechwriting rather than careful thought.

I said that the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had “diminished, in advance, the credibility of whatever future intelligence claims Bush and Blair might make.”

I said that the so-called “coalition of the willing” there had been “more of a joke than a reality.”

The interview that followed was cordial and wide-ranging. Gaddis found a President who was not only open to criticism but seemed determined to correct the problems that plagued his first term.

While critical of his mistakes, Gaddis does (I think) a better job than anyone else I know of summing up Bush's "grand strategy". The meat of his speech is here. It is a lengthy excerpt, but I hope you will read it because I believe it is incredibly important:

The key to understanding the administration’s position now, I think, is this: that while everyone in the world may not know what democracy is, everyone certainly does know what tyranny entails.

The validity of that assumption became a lot clearer on January 30th, when even in the face of persistent insecurity, literally at the risk of their lives, Iraqis who’d not had the opportunity to vote in a free election for decades turned out to do so in percentages that compare favorably with the number of Americans who turned out to vote in their own far safer presidential election last November.

So while there may still be all kinds of disagreement about what kind of government will be best for Iraq, there is apparently agreement about one thing: tyranny is not that form of government.

That much the Bush administration has accomplished, and let us be clear about how that happened: without the invasion of Iraq – and without the sacrifices of a lot of Iraqi and American and British lives – it would never have happened. As even The New York Times, at last, has got around to admitting.

Are the costs worth it? Only time will tell, but as the President commented in his inaugural address – in what was surely the first time Dostoyevsky has ever been quoted in one – a fire has been ignited in the minds of men. And if recent events in Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Egypt, Ukraine, and even Kyrgysystan are any indication, that fire is spreading.

All right, my students and even some colleagues have argued, but isn’t idea of ending tyranny a departure from the more sensible policies the United States has followed in the past?

No way: there were echoes in Bush’s speech of the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, Wilson’s Fourteen Points, FDR’s Four Freedoms, the Truman Doctrine, Kennedy’s inaugural, Reagan’s 1982 speech to the British Parliament, and any number of speeches by Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

What is new is this: previous presidents tended to distinguish between ideals and interests. The expansion of freedom was an aspiration – but the interests of the United States lay elsewhere: in securing independence, suppressing secession, winning world wars, containment, deterrence, the maintenance of a balance of power, the promotion of capitalism, the encouragement of predictably pro-American regimes elsewhere, even if they didn’t meet our own standards for representative government and the defense of human rights.

Bush has now conflated ideals and interests. As he put it in the inaugural: “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.” Freedom itself is to be the strategy, not just the aspiration. It may, in this sense, be radical. It is hardly un-American.

But isn’t it impractical? However will we get to the point of ending tyranny throughout the world? How will we ever afford it, given our overstretched finances and our even more overstretched military?

That’s where Bush’s view of history comes in. As he pointed out in the inaugural address, the past four decades been defined by “the swiftest advance of freedom ever seen.” It is, he added, “an odd time” to doubt the continuation of this trend.

Or, to put it in terms my friend and neighbor Paul Kennedy – a former bookie’s runner – would be familiar with: if you had to place a bet on which form of government will expand its reach over the next four years – or, if you prefer, the next forty – where would you put your money: on the growth of tyranny, or on its further decline?

The test of a good grand strategy is to align itself with trends already underway, so that you minimize, as much as possible, what Clausewitz called “friction.” My bet is that we’ll encounter more friction from now on if we support tyrants than if we resist them. So it does seem to me that the Bush administration has placed its bet in the right place.

Doesn’t the Bush grand strategy violate John Quincy Adams’s great principle that “the United States goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy”?

Not really, and this brings us back to 9/11. Because the danger now is that the monsters from abroad, if nothing is done to counter them, will seek to destroy us here at home.

The trend in global politics is indeed toward democracy, but the trend could be reversed by just a few more well-placed attacks on the scale of 9/11 or greater, whether in this country or elsewhere. In this sense, the world itself is now like Iraq, in which the depredations of a few place all at risk.

Given the choice, the President insists, people will choose freedom. But tyrants and terrorists – even just a few of them – could still deny that choice for many if they were to obtain and use weapons of mass destruction. If we wait for them to act, it will be too late.

That’s why it’s necessary now – as it has not been in the past – to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. I suspect that even John Quincy, no shrinking violet, when confronted with this choice would have seen its logic.

So this is where we are: with great power has come a great aspiration, which is to end tyranny throughout the world.

The historians will decide, in the end, whether it meets Spiderman’s test of great responsibility – but this historian, for one, is leaning in the direction of saying, yes it does. It would be irresponsible, I think, to have such great power, and not to try to use it in this way.

I could not agree more.

Unfortunately, it is far easier to hide one's head in the sand and hope that the danger will pass us by. The present costs of complacency are low and the benefits high. It is only the next generation that will pay the price of inaction.

Gaddis is not the only one to see this marrying of hard-headed realism and idealism as a continuation of history. The two need not conflict: policy is more successful when they support and compliment each other. Recently Henry Kissinger (hardly a wide-eyed ingenue) made the same point:

Though advanced as a new doctrine, the regime-change prescription follows well-established precedent. It was the impetus behind the religious wars of the 17th century, the wars of the French Revolution in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Holy Alliance, the Trotskyite version of Communism, and the contemporary Muslim jihad. Realists judge policy by the ability to persevere in the pursuit of an objective in stages, each of which is imperfect by absolute standards but would not be attempted in the absence of absolute values.
American exceptionalism, viewing itself as a shining city on the hill, has always insisted on representing universal values beyond the traditional dictates of national interest.
In a world of jihad, terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, President Bush in his second inaugural address put forward a challenge at once going beyond the interests of any one country and that different societies could embrace without prejudice to their own interests.
He elaborated that the United States seeks progress toward freedom, not its ultimate achievement in a defined time, and that it recognizes the historical evolution that must be the foundation of any successful process. On this basis, realists and idealists should go forward together.

This is a subtle goal, and one that CardinalPark, to whom I am indebted for the Gaddis link, notes the media seem unable to grasp:

The MSM are just so profoundly unserious about the waging of it, it's difficulties, and the fundamental challenges, mistakes and learning and adaptation that come from it. It's difficult. But there's no turning away from it. The other guy is out to get you. He can't be negotiated with. You must unconditionally defeat him.
...The story missed, in all this, is the historical brilliance with which the War in Iraq is actually being waged despite its difficulty. From the defeat of Saddam's regime, to the defeat of al qaeda and baathist holdouts in Iraq, the creation of a new popularly elected government, the restoration of Iraqi economy and infrastructure, and on and on. The MSM is caught up in a perpetual desire to create a Watergate and be the next Woodward and Bernstein, while the Middle East goes through a democratic revolution the US started and the UN collapses under what may ultimately be the largest global financial fraud ever -- and they miss it completely. Compare that to the Carter Administration Era's failed effort to conduct a hostage rescue in Tehran that killed our serviceman and literally never got off the ground. American capabilities, in a difficult and complex environment, have never been greater. War is hard, but it seems intelligent mainstream reporting is impossible.
This is a point I keep returning to: where is the historical perspective in all of this?

We are embarked upon a grand enterprise and all the media can do is focus upon the latest car bombing. Will that be in the history books in 50 years?

Which events will stand out when our grandchildren study this century?

September 11th
The overthrow of Saddam Hussein
The ouster of Syria from Lebanon
The fall of the Taliban
The elections in Iraq and Afghanistan
Women getting the vote in Kuwait

Perhaps democracy coming to Iran?

These are, truly, events of historic importance. Take a step back, and a deep breath. Shake off the tyranny of trivia for just a moment and look at the big picture and it is impossible to escape the conclusion that these are only minor perturbations in the grand scheme of things. Most of what we read in our daily newspapers will seem, ironically, much less important in six months or even a year. Very shortly, no one will care about, nor remember, prices at the gas pump.

But I suspect George Bush will seem much, much larger when viewed through history's lens.

Posted by Cassandra at May 19, 2005 05:25 AM

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Posted by: Cassandra at May 19, 2005 08:49 AM

I remember Reagan. Their hatred these days seems watered down by comparison.

Posted by: Ciggy at May 19, 2005 11:21 AM

Good, thoughtful stuff. You didn't just quote Gaddis, you built sensibly on his insights. Love that. I linked this post here:


Posted by: Patrick O'Hannigan at May 19, 2005 03:18 PM

I tried linking to your post but it didn't seem take.

But it's here

Posted by: CoolBlue at May 19, 2005 06:04 PM

Nice post. It is thought provoking. On an extension in the same light I ask myself, "What will be history's view on the way our military conducted the WoT?". As of right now with all the blantant attacks and lies trying to be spoon fed the public on everything from the average intelligence level of our troops to outright slanderous lies about their behavior I really wonder how history will judge them.

Those of us that know these young people have no doubt as to not only their intelligence level but their moral sensibilities as well. But you have to ask, "Where are the Heroes?". To me there is a concerted effort not to report on the actual heroism that is being perfromed in combat. An actual conscious decision is being made on how the WoT is being covered. And it is not in a positive light on these fine young people. I grew up on stories of heroism peformed in battle. Not so today. It is politically incorrect to "glorify" a Serviceman for "killing". No way will this generation be allowed to be trundled into the same heroic stories that I grew up on. Again, how will history judge them if their stories are not told?

Sorry to go off on a tangent Cass but it struck me soundly while reading this piece. Have you even seen any award ceremonies for Silver Stars et al on the evening news? Seems all we get are the "human interest" stories of young men and women fighting back from mangles bodies. Those stories are important in and of themselves but the total lack of anything resembling heroism in battle says a lot about certain agendas.

Oh well, I know in this household and family stories of boys that have aquitted themselves in the finest tradition of those that went before will be told and retold. They will be passed down as well as the other stories of all our Heroes! Our FAMILY history will continue to revel in their exploits and courage under fire!

Lest we all fall under the same turpitude as those attacking the very fiber that provides our survival I say this to them: Kiss My Grits! ;-)

Posted by: JarheadDad at May 19, 2005 06:18 PM

Thanks for the link Cassandra and nice post. Clearly, we are in agreement. It will take competitive pressure to move the MSM around to reporting on heroism rather than "trivia" as you put it (bluntly and coldheartedly, but accurately). We need somebody like that fellow Simon from American Idol to create a TV show on USMC heroism in battle. Or John Walsh and america's most wanted. It will feel tacky, but Hollywood largely has ceded this ground. We have no swaggering John Wayne or Charleton Heston. The American public would enjoy it. And the right producer would put the historical meaning in context too. I haven't found that show yet. Maybe Roger Simon can write it!

Posted by: cardinalpark at May 20, 2005 08:29 AM

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