Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Democracy: Walking the Walk

Democracy: Walking the Walk
President Bush's talk of the power of freedom is inspiring. But it's hardly sufficient when it's selective and hypocritical
By Jonathan Alter

Jan. 24 issue - You've heard the explanations of why John Kerry is not raising his right hand in front of the Capitol this week. Anxieties about security, a failure to share the voters' moral values and the "toughness gap" between Democrats and Republicans are the most common theories. But there's another reason Kerry never connected: he failed to tap into the idealism of the American people. In part because he was so ambivalent about Iraq, he never spoke convincingly about spreading democracy around the world, opting instead for less-stirring calls for realism and multilateralism. It's as if Kerry found it a little hokey to talk too much about freedom.

President Bush does not. The theme of his Inaugural Address, he says, is that freedom brings peace and security. Personally, I'm a sucker for this kind of rhetoric and I wish more liberals could shed their self-consciousness about using it. But even though evangelism about democracy is necessary for any successful president, it is not sufficient. Just as we are grasping anew the limits of power, we will soon relearn the limits of idealism.

The president did not originally invade Iraq for idealistic reasons. Bush did it to show toughness against available Arab bad guys after 9/11, to take care of unfinished family business with Saddam and because his gut—in which he places the fate of the nation—wrongly told him that Iraq possessed WMDs that could be painlessly removed. (The search for such weapons officially ended last week.) Now Bush cleverly depicts the war as a noble struggle to bring freedom to the Middle East. He presses "The Case for Democracy," by Natan Sharansky, into the hands of visitors, even though Sharansky makes a point of writing that early elections in countries seeking a democratic future can be harmful. Bush hopes "the vision thing" that so eluded his father will cast his administration in a rosy glow of good intentions and take some of the sting out of the losses in Iraq.

Can a suspiciously convenient, third-string rationale for war also be sincere? Yes, because it's connected to how Bush sees his legacy, which is always the preoccupation of second-term presidents. Bush is a Woodrow Wilsonian idealist, not a Poppy Bush realist. While the president of Princeton and the president of DKE don't seem to have much in common (and the neocons would have thought the League of Nations was full of pantywaists), Bush, too, seeks to "make the world safe for democracy."

But Bush prefers Ronald Reagan to Wilson as an exemplar, which begins to explain where his vision falls short. Reagan wasn't much interested in promoting democracy except as a weapon to destroy the Soviet Union from within. All over the world, dictators like Saddam Hussein cheered his election. Reaganism was effective and inspiring but also hypocritical—the kind of ersatz idealism that apparently allows Bush to press for democracy in every Middle Eastern country except the ones that sell us oil or help us fight terrorism. That's a rather long list. The Inaugural Address might as well contain an asterisk that says: "Does not apply to Saudi Arabia or any place else in the region besides Iraq and the Palestinian Authority."

Idealism worthy of the name cannot be so instrumental and selective. If it isn't consistently applied—if it's used to shroud the truth—idealism is just another tactic. If Bush were serious about connecting his lofty democratic goals for the Middle East to the reality of the region, he would be working with Hillary Clinton and the Democrats on their idea for more international education. The love of freedom may, as the president movingly puts it, reside in every human heart, but it must also be nurtured in the young, just as the Saudis have funded madrassas to indoctrinate their dangerous Wahhabi views. But international education sounds wimpy to muscle-bound Republicans, so Clinton's proposal is DOA.

If Bush wants to drive home his message, not just pontificate about it, he would also be leading by example on the ideals that bolster democracy, like transparency and accountability. He would stop dissembling about the true costs of his domestic dreams, from privatizing Social Security to making the tax cuts permanent. And he would be firing at least one or two of the policymakers who botched the war. Awarding them the Presidential Medal of Freedom was as if CBS had decided to nominate Dan Rather and his shoddy National Guard story for an Emmy.

Like Woodrow Wilson, George W. Bush does not have the country behind him for a sweeping effort to remake the world in our image. So for now, his idealistic vision remains just words in the January air, a game attempt to ennoble suffering and failure, sincere but not serious.