Magazine article The American Prospect

The President's New Crusade

Magazine article The American Prospect

The President's New Crusade

Article excerpt

On Nov. 6, George W. Bush claimed the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan in a speech setting out a "forward strategy" to extend freedom and democracy to the Islamic nations of the Middle East. Liberty, the president said, is the "plan of heaven for humanity," which seemed to imply, in an echo from centuries past, that our form of government is divinely inspired. He also called liberty "the design of nature," "the direction of history" and the "best hope for progress," arguing that it is America's "calling"--our Manifest Destiny, so to speak--to advance freedom in the rest of the world.

The speech had many fine words and noble ideas. "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe," the president said, "because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty."

But though some of Bush's sentiments were admirable, we need to put his speech in context and examine his historical and political claims more closely.

The Iraq War began with two justifications. One was protecting America's security; the other, bringing democracy to Iraq. With the failure to find weapons of mass destruction or connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, the security rationale has grown increasingly doubtful. Unable to substantiate the claims about Iraq that his administration originally put before the world, the president has elevated the democratic rationale in a defensive, rhetorical escalation.

The sequence of Bush's positions raises doubts about how seriously we ought to take his new principles. As a presidential candidate, he disparaged nation building, deplored the use of the military as peacekeepers and at tacked interventions based on human rights on the grounds that national security should be our overriding concern in foreign affairs. Some might say of his turn-about, "Better late than never--what's wrong with his conversion to Wilsonian idealism?"

What's wrong is partly his distortion of the tradition he claims to inherit. Wilson and Roosevelt were vitally interested in creating institutions to maintain a framework of international law and security, gut it is just this framework that Bush has rejected by insisting on the need for the United States to act alone, not just in defending itself but apparently in extending democracy as well. …

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