"Ideas have consequences," the conservative intellectual Richard Weaver wrote half a century ago. The truism comes to mind as another group of conservative intellectuals, this one guiding foreign policy inside the Bush administration, prepares to launch a war in the Middle East--not for oil or geopolitical advantage but on behalf of an idea. The idea is liberalism.
According to President Bush, "Liberty for the Iraqi people is a great moral cause," and, as such, he routinely casts the impending war as an effort to bring democracy to a land that has known only dictatorship. Nor, in Bush's telling, will America's duty be discharged when Iraq subsequently has a decent government. Instead, he suggests the war will be the beginning of a campaign that will "bring the hope of democracy ... to every corner of the world." If this sounds familiar, it's because it almost exactly echoes Woodrow Wilson's pledge to "make the world safe for democracy." Which stands to reason: In word, if not yet in deed, Bush is becoming the most Wilsonian president since Wilson himself. True, Bush has fallen short of his moralistic rhetoric in postwar Afghanistan, and many in his administration are Kissingerian devotees of realpolitik. Nonetheless, the man who entered office pledging to focus on narrowly understood "vital interests," is rapidly being transformed into a democratic crusader. He, more than his left-leaning critics, is harnessing American power to liberal ends.
The adjective Wilsonian is today shorthand for a brand of artless universalism, a Kantian worldview that places too much faith in international treaties and organizations. But, in truth, there were two Woodrow Wilsons. The first staked his reputation on the League of Nations and the good faith of the international community. The inheritance of this Wilson has been passed down from generation to generation, from those who insisted during the cold war that the United States act only in conjunction with the "world community" to those who insist we do the same today.
But there was another Woodrow Wilson--the Wilson that pledged to make the world safe for democracy and vowed that America would "spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness." This Wilson believed that international organizations were only as trustworthy as their members, that the character of governments was the key to peace and stability. "A steadfast concert of peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations," he said in 1917. "No autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants." The legacy of Wilson the democratic crusader was also passed down from generation to generation-- from Harry Truman, who argued that "totalitarian regimes ... undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States, " to John F. Kennedy--before being put to rest in the jungles of Vietnam.
Yet this legacy was resuscitated during the 1970s, when a group of cold war liberals condemned both the reflexive opposition to U.S. power that had seized the Democratic Party and the cold-blooded realpolitik that defined the Republican Party of Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger. Harkening back to Wilson the democratic idealist, these "neoconservatives" promoted a vision of U.S. power that was universalistic and unapologetic. Appalled by the "hostility to one's own country and ... derision of the idea that it stands for anything worth defending," as elite wisdom was summarized by Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz in 1977, the neoconservatives advocated a robust approach to the international scene--an approach that championed the cause of what Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer at the time called "the shrinking island of democracies in the world." Initially, this worldview drew neoconservatives to Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a hawkish Democrat for whom future Bush advisers such as Elliott Abrams and Richard Perle worked, and then to Ronald Reagan, who as president translated many of their ideas into policy. But, with the end of the cold war and the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, neither of whom had much use for their brand of democratic idealism, the vision fell out of favor once more.
STRANGELY, THE TASK of reviving it has fallen to a president who campaigned on adopting a more "humble" approach to the world. Bush's choice for secretary of state, Colin Powell--famous for his admonition that the United States should intervene abroad only when the "cold calculus of national interest" is at stake- -had opposed intervening to halt the slaughter in Bosnia and even opposed reversing Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Yet today Powell forcefully makes the case for "liberating" Iraq. He does so not because he has had an epiphany about Saddam Hussein; he spent months arguing against this war, too. He does so because he lost the argument to the administration's latter-day liberals, particularly Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who has been urging the president to topple Saddam since September 11, 2001.
Indeed, Bush did not create his foreign policy out of whole cloth. Never before, not even during the Reagan administration, have Wolfowitz and his fellow neoconservatives shaped policy as they do today. Controversial Reagan and Jackson veteran Abrams was recently appointed to oversee Middle East policy at the National Security Council, while other neoconservatives staff Vice President Dick Cheney's "shadow" national security council. The Pentagon has become a virtual think tank for like-minded thinkers, among them Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, Richard Perle (in an advisory capacity), and Wolfowitz, whose lectures on democracy have been embedded--almost verbatim-- in the president's National Security Strategy. Consequently, the influence of Wilsonian ideas may be gleaned in everything from the administration's plan to use Iraq as a pivot for democratizing the Arab world to its broader strategy of transforming rather than coexisting with totalitarian regimes.
As for the president himself, by his own admission, the September 11 attacks transformed his worldview--so much so that within months he had enshrined "regime change" and its goal of liberal democracy in official policy. Today, he pledges that the United States "will use this moment of opportunity to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe." Bush has offered two explanations for this. First, democracy makes strategic sense: "Free societies do not intimidate through cruelty and conquest," Bush says, "and open societies do not threaten the world with mass murder." Writing in Foreign Policy, the historian John Lewis Gaddis summarizes the president's logic this way:
[T]he persistence of authoritarianism anywhere can breed resentments that can provoke terrorism that can do us grievous harm. There is a compellingly realistic reason now to complete the idealistic task Woodrow Wilson began more than eight decades ago: the world must be made safe for democracy, because otherwise democracy will not be safe in the world.
The strategic imperative of democracy has become particularly acute in the Arab world, where repression has fueled Islamist terror and where today there is not a single democracy. Unlike his predecessors, Bush insists the "requirements of freedom apply fully to Africa and Latin America and the entire Islamic world," and it is in the Islamic world where his administration has concentrated its democratization efforts.
According to members of the Bush team, those efforts now constitute a "fourth track" of U.S. policy in the Middle East, alongside the war on terror, the conflict with Iraq, and the Arab-Israeli peace process. In recent months, this track has yielded major addresses on the subject by the Bush team's key players, the creation of a U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative, which will channel tens of millions of dollars to the region's indigenous democracy advocates, and a plan to use much of the $1 billion in annual aid the United States provides Arab nations for political development. The administration has also unveiled a $5 billion program, the Millennium Challenge Account, which explicitly ties U.S. aid to political reform; rejected Egypt's bid to attend last year's meeting of the Community of Democracies; censured Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for his treatment of democracy activists; created a radio network to bring accurate news coverage to the Middle East; and loudly insisted on democratic reform as a precondition for an independent Palestine.
But, in the president's telling, all this amounts to a mere appetizer. The real pivot for democracy in the Middle East will be democracy in Iraq. The Bush team sincerely believes that the vista that "the first Arab democracy," as Wolfowitz calls it, could open up will transform the region--further encouraging already liberalizing regimes like Morocco and Qatar, pressuring the theocrats in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and demonstrating to the Arab masses that there exists a third way between Islamism and repression. In Iraq, which possesses an urbanized middle class and once boasted some of the highest literacy rates in the region, a U.S. military occupation may well make this vision a reality. Will it transform the Arab world? Maybe. Maybe not. But the impulse behind the strategy reflects the highest-minded of liberal ideals.
IN FACT, WHILE Bush contends that exporting democracy is sound strategy, he also offers a classical liberal justification: No people should be governed without their consent. Or, as he puts it, "No people on earth yearn to be oppressed, aspire to servitude, or eagerly await the midnight knock of the secret police." But here we pass through the looking glass. For, while even Cheney has begun to speak the language of Eleanor Roosevelt, liberal Bush critics like Harvard Professor Stanley Hoffmann, who only a few years ago was championing humanitarian interventions and "morality in foreign policy," cannot fathom why the United States would want to change "countries that have no past experience of democracy and where repressive regimes face no experienced or cohesive opposition." Conservatives used to delight in bashing the Clinton administration for its "Wilsonianism." Now liberals bash the Bush administration for the same sin.
A more principled critique of Bush's expansive worldview derives from the suspicion of power inherent in contemporary liberalism. "The vision laid out in the Bush document," Hendrik Hertzberg writes in The New Yorker, "is a vision of what used to be called, when we believed it to be the Soviet ambition, world domination." True, Bush offers a vision of U.S. power that is robust and perhaps even "hegemonic." But Bush also insists, "[W]e do not use our strength to press for unilateral advantage. We seek instead to create ... conditions in which all nations and all societies can choose for themselves the rewards and challenges of political and economic liberty." There is no contradiction here. Bush rejects the complacent assumption that democratization can be left to either the market or to the multilateral organizations of which any tyranny may be a member. Instead, he argues that the United States has long been the principal agent of democracy and that, more than ever, "the advance of human freedom ... now depends on us." This is a thoroughly Wilsonian proposition-- which also happens to be true.
Finally, there is the "what-about-Turkmenistan" argument, which accuses the administration of practicing double standards in its support for democracy abroad. But, in a war on terrorism, making common cause with, say, Central Asian dictators who repress their subjects but offer U.S. forces access to the Afghan border makes a certain amount of moral sense. Paying due respect to reality means recognizing that a military defeat for the world's premier custodian of democracy is a setback for the cause of democracy as well. This is why Franklin Roosevelt enlisted the Soviet Union in the war against Hitler and Harry Truman enlisted then-authoritarian South Korea and Taiwan in the war against communism. What makes absolutely no sense is the Bush team's habit of standing by repressive regimes like China, Saudi Arabia, and Syria that have not, in turn, stood by us.
In Afghanistan, too, the administration has betrayed its rhetoric by skimping on reconstruction and impeding international peacekeeping. But, in postwar Iraq, Bush cannot skimp. Which brings us to the only real flaw in Bush's vision--its implementation. Already, the State Department's Middle East hands have launched a campaign to short-circuit any attempt to democratize Iraq and thereby assuage the fears of authoritarian Egypt and Saudi Arabia. "The bureaucrats responsible for this plan [to impede Iraqi democratization]," complains leading Iraqi democracy advocate Kanan Makiya, "are drawn from those parts of the administration that have always been hostile to the idea of a U.S.- assisted democratic transformation." The plan Makiya refers to was devised by the CIA and the State Department. It calls for an American military governor to rule Iraq for up to one year with the aid of an Iraqi advisory council, while a judiciary committee drafts a constitution and plans elections for a national assembly. But the plan also calls for keeping Saddam's infrastructure of terror in check--merely replacing the top two officials in each of his ministries. Meanwhile, the administration has been courting exiles, such as former Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations Adnan Pachachi, known less for their opposition to Saddam than for their opposition to his opposition.
All this calls into question the sincerity of the president's rhetoric. After all, how will already anti-American Arab populations react when they awaken to find that the United States has brought to Iraq not democracy but yet more of the same? How will they react when they discover that, for all the Bush team's talk of democratizing, it won't even democratize a country under U.S. occupation? The reasons for deciding to go to war with Iraq are as momentous as the decision itself. And, at least as Bush has articulated them, those reasons commit the United States to extend the benefits of democracy to the Arab world. The president should follow through on the essentially liberal vision he has laid out. Then he should complete the job Wilson began.