Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 9, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

BUSH'S SPEECH....OK, let's get down to it: what did I think of George Bush's speech the other day? I'm having a hard time condensing my thoughts on this into a single post, but here we go.

First: it was a good speech. A few days ago I remarked that since, in the end, Saddam Hussein turned out not to have any weapons that presented a genuine security threat to America, Bush needed to provide a broader rationale for both the invasion of Iraq and our overall policies in the Middle East. If he didn't, public support would continue to dwindle away.

The good news is that he did:

Time after time, observers have questioned whether this country, or that people, or this group, are "ready" for democracy as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own Western standards of progress....It should be clear to all that Islam the faith of one-fifth of humanity is consistent with democratic rule.

....Yet there's a great challenge today in the Middle East. In the words of a recent report by Arab scholars, the global wave of democracy has and I quote "barely reached the Arab states."

....Securing democracy in Iraq is the work of many hands....This is a massive and difficult undertaking it is worth our effort, it is worth our sacrifice, because we know the stakes. The failure of Iraqi democracy would embolden terrorists around the world, increase dangers to the American people, and extinguish the hopes of millions in the region.

Now, I think the speech could have been better. In particular, Bush devoted only a couple of weak sentences to explaining why the American public should care about democracy in Iraq. Everyone's for democracy, of course, but altruism has its limits. If the American public is to stay dedicated to this, it's going to need more.

But that's a quibble. If Bush is willing to make this kind of speech a regular part of his repertoire, it's a good start.


Unfortunately, while it was a good speech, there's precious little evidence that he has either the vision or the will to see it through. And this is where I get a little perplexed: why does Bush continue to retain support from anyone these days?

On the left, there are a lot of people who don't think we should have invaded Iraq at all. Obviously they don't support Bush.

But as we move toward the center, we get people like, say, Ken Pollack, who agree that the Middle East is a dangerous place and that America ought to try and do something about it. But these folks also understood what it would take to do things right and felt that Bush fought "the wrong war." We should have been more patient, and more willing to build international support. Do these guys still support Bush, and if so, why?

And then we get to the right, where people like Bill Kristol also reluctantly recognize the truth about Bush. Kristol, like most hawks, is gung ho on the idea of remaking the Middle East, but recognizes that George Bush is entirely unwilling to match deeds to words. We need more troops to make the Iraqi reconstruction work, but Bush has shown himself unwilling to take any of the possible paths that would increase troop strength. So why are these guys still supporting Bush?

Here's what it comes down to. There were three alternatives for dealing with Iraq, and I assume that from the point of view of the hawks they go like this, in order of preference:

  1. Invade Iraq and win. Send a message to the rest of the Arab world.

  2. Don't invade Iraq.

  3. Invade Iraq, but do it on the cheap and screw it up.

George Bush, despite the fine words of his speech, has pretty clearly chosen option #3, and I assume that everyone agrees this is the worst of all possible choices. Even the hawks would prefer not to invade at all than to invade and fail, right?

And so we get down to realities. How does George Bush plan to follow up on the inspiring words of his speech?

By force of arms? He's not willing to increase the size of the U.S. military and he's not willing to engage seriously with other nations to get help from them either.

By diplomacy? His diplomacy in the Middle East has been a disaster, and his flat unwillingness to expend serious capital on the Israeli-Palestinian war means it's likely to stay that way.

By pressure on Arab states to reform? Bush's coziness with Saudi Arabia is legendary, and there's simply no evidence that he's genuinely willing to put any overt pressure on countries that are nominally friendly toward us.

By foreign aid and institution building? As Fareed Zakaria points out, toughminded Republicans generally think of this as naive idealism, and Bush seems to see it this way too. There's been no sign at all that he's interested in the long, hard slog of "economic reform, trade, exchange programs, legal and educational advances, and hundreds of such small-bore efforts."

So I don't get it. I really don't. Hawks are in favor of scaring the Middle East into reform through force of arms, but George Bush isn't willing to take the political risks it would take to do that. Doves are in favor of softer efforts that rely on diplomacy and multilateral institutions, but Bush is pretty obviously not interested in that either.

In other words, he's not willing to do any of the things that might conceivably bring democracy and liberalization to the Middle East.

So: nice speech. But regardless of whether your ideas are good or bad, you're doomed to certain failure unless you're willing to seriously follow up on them. George Bush isn't, and since I think failure here has the potential to be catastrophic, I'll be voting for someone else next November.

Kevin Drum 5:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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