TCS Daily

The Liberal Case for Bush

By Michael Totten - October 7, 2004 12:00 AM

Author's Note: I am a centrist swing voter. This article is the second in a two-part series. I first wrote the hawkish case for John Kerry. This is the case -- the liberal one -- for George W. Bush.

The May 19, 2003, cover of Time Magazine features a black-and-white photo of an upbeat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, cigarette holder jammed jauntily between his teeth, with a headline that says They Don't Make Democrats Like They Used To.

They sure don't.

And Democrats don't build nations like they used to.

Liberation and nation-building have been crucial parts of the Democratic tradition from the reconstruction of post-war Germany and Japan to the rescue and rehabilitation of Bosnia and Kosovo.

In the 1990s and early 2000s I grew accustomed to hearing conservatives scoff at Bill Clinton's efforts as "international social work." With the honorable exception of dissident neoconservatives, post-Cold War Republicans increasingly resembled their circa 1930s isolationist counterparts.

Even after the Vietnam War -- at least when Clinton was president -- the Democrats had the right temperament for guns-and-butter liberalism abroad. The intervention against Slobo's regime in Serbia wasn't slammed as a "unilateral war." It was the Peace Corps with muscles.

But when George W. Bush implemented the Clinton Administration's policy of regime-change in Iraq, democratic nation-building morphed into "imperialism." Overthrowing a totalitarian regime was deemed "reckless." What mattered most was "stability." Just as September 11 taught George W. Bush that liberals had a point all along, liberals started to sound like... conservatives.

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention John Kerry borrowed a crusty old plank from the foreign-aid-opposing America-First right as an applause line.

"[W]e shouldn't be opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them down in the United States of America."

I didn't know we were closing down any firehouses. Did you? I'll bet you didn't. Let's say we are and let's say we shouldn't be. Fine, then, Kerry is right. But why did he have to complain about opening firehouses in Baghdad? Baghdad is burning. Baghdad has been burning for decades. Baghdad can't afford to have an American president who shrugs at its problems.

Woodrow Wilson, good Democrat that he was, fought to make the world "safe for democracy." There is no more noble or inspiring reason to fight. John Kerry is no Woodrow Wilson. In his most important speech, the set-piece of his campaign, he didn't mention freedom or democracy for Iraqis. Not even once.

Conventional wisdom says Kerry has taken every possible position on the Iraq war. But it's not true. He hasn't. There is one he has ignored all along, the very position he should have championed from the beginning: the liberal case for war, the one that gave Operation Iraqi Freedom its name.

Maybe it never occurred to him to take the liberal position. Perhaps he considered it and shrugged or thought it was stupid. In any case, he won't touch it. And that's a serious problem. It stands as a de-facto repudiation of his great party's tradition.

He did mention democracy in his speech, though. "Our purpose now is to reclaim democracy itself." But he wasn't talking about democracy in the Middle East. He was talking about America as if it were ruled by a dissent-smashing dictatorship. Democracy plainly exists in the United States. The proof of that, as if any should even be needed, is that Kerry suggested otherwise while he was running for president.

Democracy needs to be claimed alright, but not in this country. Our liberal system of government is older, deeper, and stronger than any other on Earth. To speak of democracy as if ours must be "reclaimed" while poor oppressed masses -- who are desperate to come to America -- suffer under cold-hearted brutal regimes in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, is about as blinkered and provincial a whine imaginable.

Democracy doesn't exist in Iraq. It doesn't exist in any Middle Eastern country other than Israel. Bush makes this the lynchpin of his foreign policy. Kerry can hardly be bothered to give it lip service.

He has a hard time in our own hemisphere, too. Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer, no Bush supporter, was disappointed when he asked Kerry about the peaceful citizen's revolt in Cuba:

"Kerry showed little enthusiasm when I asked him if he would seek greater international backing for the Varela Project, the petition signed by more than 30,000 Cubans on the island to hold a referendum on whether to hold free elections.

"While he has supported the Varela Project in the past, Kerry told me that it 'has gotten a lot of people in trouble, ... and it brought down the hammer in a way that I think wound up being counterproductive.'"

It was counterproductive? Is Kerry actually saying the architects of the Varela Project should not even have tried? Clearly the project wasn't effective. But that's hardly the fault of the people who backed it. Cuba lacks democracy because a half century of absolute power isn't enough for Fidel Castro. Yet Kerry has the nerve to suggest "counterproductive" Cuban liberals are somehow partly to blame.

Iraq's Ayatollah Sistani does a much better job promoting Islamic democracy than the supposedly liberal Democrats.

British leftist Johann Hari (who happened to favor the overthrow of Saddam) read Sistani's book A Code of Practice for Muslims in the West and dubbed it "a startlingly progressive text." Neoconservative intellectual Reuel Marc Gerecht described one of Sistani's fatwas this way:

"[I]t speaks the language of inalienable rights: one man, one vote; and a constitution written by elected representatives and approved by popular referendum. In this one bold stroke Sistani managed to launch, and garner popular support for, a project that Muslim progressives have only ever dreamed of: establishing a democratic political order sanctioned and even protected by the clergy." [Emphasis added.]

John Kerry and the rest of his party ought to seize and amplify this. Here is Iraq's most powerful ayatollah, arguably the most popular man in the country, who is free to speak his mind, free to champion a liberal Middle East using the Koran as his justification. And all Kerry and the Democrats can do is seethe and whine about the very operation that made it possible in the first place.

If you've been around long enough you might remember an old-left slogan: Fascism Means War. Fascism still means war, but not to the same people. The left ceded that plank to the right.

And while the Republicans are more than happy to take up the anti-fascist banner, John Kerry and a huge swath of the Democratic Party embrace a conservative, uninspiring, pessimistic "realism" that fetishizes stability no matter how oppressive it is.

Sometimes we have to cut deals with nasty rulers when we're in a tough spot. But the Cold War strategy of habitually propping up right-wing military regimes so long as they were anti-Communist went way beyond what was necessary or even defensible. As Christopher Hitchens recently put it:

"I have never seen anyone argue that the mass murder in East Timor, for example, helped to bring down the Berlin Wall.

I don't have to explain any of this to liberal activists. They were the ones who taught it to me. But most haven't even noticed that George W. Bush has turned Henry Kissinger's noxious "realist" game on its head. He couldn't have made it more clear when he gave the commencement address at the Air Force Academy in June 2004:

"For decades, free nations tolerated oppression in the Middle East for the sake of stability. In practice, this approach brought little stability and much oppression, so I have changed this policy."

There you have it. This is exactly what liberals have demanded for decades. And now that Bush veers to the left he is jeered by the left for being "reckless," "extremist," "imperialist," and even "fascist." That's precisely the reason some of the left's most stout-hearted members, most famously Christopher Hitchens himself, ditched their old comrades to forge an alliance with the neoconservative right.

I don't want to get carried away. Bush's record is riddled with holes. He is way too chummy with Vladimir Putin as Russia slouches toward fascism. If he has any objections to Islam Karimov's brutal police state in Uzbekistan he keeps them to himself -- or at least off the record. And his warm relationship with the wretched House of Saud is the worst of all.

The problem is that John Kerry is no better. He has plenty to say about our dependence on Saudi oil. But he says nothing about the Bush Administration's coziness with what can only be described as an enemy state during war time. This failing on the part of the Bush Administration is so enormous, so damning, Kerry would have a real shot at the presidency if he were to bang away on this point alone. But he doesn't. I can only assume he plans to continue propping up this potemkin alliance on outdated "realpolitik" grounds.

A popular bumper sticker says Bush 04 -- Four More Wars! It's funny and clever. But look. Invasion-scale pre-emption is off the table. Kerry lacks the will. Bush lacks the political capital. But Bush will wield the big stick of American power to push for liberal reform in the Middle East.

I don't expect spectacular results any time soon. The Baath Party will likely endure in Syria. Yasser Arafat will remain at least the figurehead boss of the Palestinians. Moammar Ghaddafi still lords it over Libya and will continue to do so despite the fact that he's mellowed.

The thing is, Ghaddafi really has mellowed. He hasn't morphed into Libya's Mikhail Gorbachev, but he did disarm his weapons of mass destruction. His own son, of all people, is touring the Middle East and talking democratization. And it's all because of the Bush Doctrine. Don't take my word for it. Listen to the mad Colonel himself:

"I will do whatever the Americans want, because I saw what happened in Iraq, and I was afraid."

I'll bet. He should be afraid as long as Bush or any other hawk is in office.

Democracy is the talk of the rest of the region as well -- and for the same reason. Here is Steven Salinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI):

"While the governments of the Middle East insist that they will never accept reform dictated from outside, a look at each country reveals that widespread debate regarding reform is now underway. Conferences on reform have been held this year in Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, and Qatar. The daily headlines of most Arabic newspapers discuss reform, while substantial time is given to it on television. Almost every speech made by Arab leaders also mentions reform."

This isn't happening because the thugs in the Arab League decided out of the blue that they're tired of absolute power. It's real simple. None of them want to be "next."

Democracy will never take root in the Middle East if the people who live there don't want it themselves. We can't turn bigoted fundamentalists into genuine liberals at gunpoint. We can, however, join forces with the liberals who are already there. But most Democrats have no interest in forging an alliance with democratic Arabs to fight terror and tyrants. They would rather spend all their energy picking fights with Republicans.

If the United States doesn't demand Middle Eastern democracy, nobody will. The European Union can never convince kings and generals who kill their way into power to change their behavior. The United Nations won't even bother to try. Human rights organizations will push for liberty and democracy as they always have. But they don't have any power. They can't do it alone.

I've described the Bush Doctrine as liberal. But that's only half true. It's also conservative. It's bipartisan actually -- at least it should be -- because it deploys liberal means for conservative ends. Paul Berman put it best in Terror and Liberalism:

"Freedom for others means safety for ourselves. Let us be for the freedom of others."

And let us be against stability. For now anyway. The Middle Eastern political slum is a diabolical thing that has killed millions of people already. Some were killed in trenches, some in their homes. Some were killed in battle, others in mass graves, industrial shredders, and dungeons. Some were killed in secret, others on video. Some were killed in New York. Others were killed in Jerusalem and Buenos Aires, in Bali and Bombay. In Nairobi and Istanbul and Madrid, in Pennsylvania and Washington.

Kerry says he will respond to any attack on America. Of course he will. Any president would. But that is not enough. The tyrants of the Middle East will retrench even deeper into deadly old habits if the liberal pressure -- applied by President Bush -- is relieved from their necks.

Michael J. Totten is a TCS columnist. Visit his daily Web log at


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