A foreign policy that's as bold as Bush's, but won't boomerang
Posted by Suzanne Nossel
Martin Peretz has an article in the New Republic about a big conundrum facing us foreign policy progressives: namely, how to come to grips with Bush’s successes in promoting democracy in the Middle East. Heather touched on this toward the end of her discussion of whether the spread of democracy will reach Zimbabwe, and whehter Bush will get credit for that. Peretz criticizes liberals for “churlishness” in the face of Bush’s achievements, noting that “One does not have to admire a lot about George W. Bush to admire what he has so far wrought. One need only be a thoughtful American with an interest in proliferating liberalism around the world. And, if liberals are unwilling to proliferate liberalism, then conservatives will. Rarely has there been a sweeter irony.”
I agree with his last point, namely that progressives must reclaim our heritage of liberal internationalism before conservatives steal and thwart it for good. I wrote about that in Foreign Affairs last year and more recently in a piece for CAP. I also think we need to give Bush props for ungluing Arab totalitarianism. Let's face it: most of us did not think this could be done, and we certainly had no plan for how to do it in the short-term.
We might as well give Bush credit because:
a) he deserves it (or at least part of it, sort of);
b) the country will credit him even if we don’t, so there’s not much to lose;
c) what’s happening in the Mideast is genuinely good news;
d) glueckschmerz (the opposite of schadenfreude, i.e. sorrow at someone else’s happiness) is unseemly.
But couple of new thoughts:
It’s not (just) churlishness that makes us hesitant to praise Bush’s accomplishments. Rather, we are convinced that key aspects of his approach -- the arrogance, the deception, the lack of accountability, the cronyism, the dismissiveness of critics and questioners, the failure to uphold democratic values while purporting to promote democracy, the refusal to admit mistakes -- are flat out wrong.
We’re not blind to the positive and important results of Bush’s daring in the Middle East. But we believe that over time, the negative sides of his foreign policy will likely overwhelm the positive, isolating America, making threats more difficult to contain, and undermining our influence and our security. It’s a tough to laud the results of Bush's press for democracy without being misconstrued as endorsing his foreign policy as a whole. We fear that anything perceived as easing up on the critique will open the door to an untrammeled brand of unilateralism that will ultimately prove counter-productive and dangerous.
The sad part of all these examples . . . is that the American administration and Bush in particular are perceived as a scourge. Reform movements in Egypt, Iran, Lebanon or Syria, whose members are ready to be killed for democracy in their country, go berserk the moment they are accused of receiving American funds or contributions. To attain public legitimacy, it appears that each of these movements needs an anti-American slogan in addition to the pro-democracy slogan.
The paradox of Bush’s foreign policy may be that what is good for democracy turns out not to be so good for the U.S. Democracies built on a foundation of resentment toward us may not turn out to be reliable allies we can count on. Rather, fueled by populations that are skeptical and resentful of America, these countries may be less likely to support American policies than their predecessor regimes. We may be creating a world of democracies, but at the same time losing our footing at the center of it.
That does not mean democracy is somehow a bad thing, or that it shouldn’t be a centerpiece of U.S. policy. It does suggest that as a matter of U.S. interests, democracy coupled with kinship and support for the U.S. is far preferable than the former without the latter.
That leaves us to applaud Bush’s boldness, his willingness to commit U.S. power and energy in furtherance of important causes, and his sense of possibility about even the most intractable region of the world. We badly need more of all of those things within our own ranks. But at the same time, we must continue hammering at what’s wrong with Bush’s approach, and scheming to define a foreign policy that will be every bit as bold and visionary, but will attract rather than repel the rest of the world.