Respond to this Article May 2005

Praise the message, blame the messenger

By Michael Tomasky

I didn't react to President Bush's second inaugural address with quite the same degree of hair-stiffening alarm that many liberals did. I grasped, obviously, the moments of dark irony: his line about "the unfinished work of American freedom" and the promise that "all who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know the United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors," when there's still, it seems to me, quite a lot of ignoring going on when it suits us.

But at the same time, I was a bit chagrined whenever I heard liberal commentators or Democratic politicians slip casually from denouncing the hypocrisies embedded in the text to disparaging the goals laid out in the speech. Wait: Opposing tyranny? Expressing faith in the idea of freedom as man's best destiny? Offering encouragement to democratic dissidents? I thought our side was supposed to be for all those things. True, those lofty words invite certain questions (actually, a ferocious debate) about the policies the United States should put into place to achieve those aims. Liberals can and obviously will disagree about when, where, and how the United States should act against dictators and on behalf of struggling people. And progressives are right to point out when the administration doesn't live up to those words, or when its idea of living up to them is mainly to make a lot of things go Boom!

Much of the discussion in progressive circles so far has been misplaced: I'm less concerned with the precise question of how much credit Bush deserves for the encouraging events unfolding in the Middle East than I am with how liberalism can reclaim the rhetoric of freedom and democratization for itself. And when I say "liberalism" in that context, I mean, really, the Democratic Party, because liberal intellectuals can yap about democracy until doomsday, but it won't matter until elected Democrats take up the topic with conviction.

The record there is dispiriting to say the least. I was disgusted with the Democrats, in the months after September 11, when they had nothing to say about what the attack meant for how the United States had to engage with the world. I asked a handful of senators and representatives and their aides why they hadn't been more aggressive in laying out a public response and vision, and they always gave me variations on two answers: "Well, that's not our job; the president makes foreign policy"; or, "We have to wait until we have a candidate." Those responses are fine for normal times. But those weren't normal times. The world had changed, and Democrats had nothing to say about it.

With the Democrats having mostly kept mum about American principles and policies overseas, well, sure, Bush does deserve some degree of credit for pushing democracy. I disagree strenuously with almost everything this administration has done. But I do think that an American president should talk about democracy and name it as an ideal to which we believe the world's nations should aspire. We can hold off terrorism through diplomacy, international policing, and, where necessary, war, but we'll really defeat it only when democracy gains some purchase in the Muslim world. And regardless of terrorism--thinking about world poverty, disease, and the more general hope that people in any country can fulfill their human potential--we need to affirm that democracy can help address all those concerns.

It would be a little dishonest of me to say otherwise, because in 2003, I wrote the following sentences: "... just starting the process, emphasizing the problem [of democratization], making democratic values a real priority in the world, could initiate dramatic change over time.... The world will start, in its lumbering, petulant way, to change." Of course, the president I had in mind doing that emphasizing was the Democratic president who was to be elected in 2004. Oh well.

But there are good ways and bad ways to promote democracy. Or to put a finer point on it: Doesn't it follow that promoting democracy needs to go hand in hand with promoting an image of the United States as the world's admired leader, whose example the aspiring democrats of the world seek to emulate? Of course it does. And that, it seems to me, is the fatal flaw of democracy promotion, Bush-style. The world hates us, and not just terrorists and tyrants.

When I saw Bush booed and whistled (whistling being the European boo) at Pope John Paul II's funeral, and realized that people devout and grief-stricken enough to brave those crowds to attend their religious leader's last rites felt moved even in that solemn context to tell the international cameras what they thought of the American president, it occurred to me--not for the first time, but more strikingly than ever--that most of the world would not buy a used car or a Bill of Rights from this man.

A president who was respected around the world would make a far more effective pitchman for our values. Bush does not have the world's respect, and it's very hard to imagine he'll gain it by the time he leaves office. This isn't just some woolly-eyed liberal plaint. It's a ground-level, real-world problem. Ask yourself: How many liberation movements, particularly in the Arab world, would like to be identified with George W. Bush? A dictator with even a crude propaganda apparatus could make short, easy work of such a movement. The world's despots have a handy straw man at their disposal as long as Bush is president.

That's where the opportunity lies for liberals, and Democrats: to argue that our ability to spread democracy is linked to our political and moral credibility with the rest of the world. That may be a hard case to make in today's Washington, but I think it's an argument most Americans will accept. Someone just has to make it to them.

Michael Tomasky is executive editor at The American Prospect.


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