Saturday, January 22, 2005

Idealistic Hot Air

Here's David Brooks in the NY Times, talking about Bush's inauguration speech. It's a strange article. I quote, at length:

The people who detest America take a look at this odd conjunction and assume the materialistic America is the real America; the ideals are a sham. The real America, they insist, is the money-grubbing, resource-wasting, TV-drenched, unreflective bimbo of the earth. The high-toned language, the anti-Americans say, is just a cover for the quest for oil, or the desire for riches, dominion and war.

But of course they've got it exactly backward. It's the ideals that are real.

Two years from now, no one will remember the spending or the ostrich-skin cowboy boots. But Bush's speech, which is being derided for its vagueness and its supposed detachment from the concrete realities, will still be practical and present in the world, yielding consequences every day.

With that speech, President Bush's foreign policy doctrine transcended the war on terror. He laid down a standard against which everything he and his successors do will be judged.

When he goes to China, he will not be able to ignore the political prisoners there, because he called them the future leaders of their free nation. When he meets with dictators around the world, as in this flawed world he must, he will not be able to have warm relations with them, because he said no relations with tyrants can be successful.

His words will be thrown back at him and at future presidents. American diplomats have been sent a strong message. Political reform will always be on the table. Liberation and democratization will be the ghost present at every international meeting. Vladimir Putin will never again be the possessor of that fine soul; he will be the menace to democracy and rule of law.

Because of that speech, it will be harder for the U.S. government to do what we did to Latin Americans for so many decades - support strongmen to rule over them because they happened to be our strongmen. It will be harder to frustrate the dreams of a captive people, the way in the early 1990's we tried to frustrate the independence dreams of Ukraine.

It will be harder for future diplomats to sit on couches flattering dictators, the way we used to flatter Hafez al-Assad of Syria decade after decade. From now on, the borders established by any peace process will be less important than the character of the regimes in that process.

The speech does not command us to go off on a global crusade, instantaneously pushing democracy on one and all. The president vowed merely to "encourage reform." He insisted that people must choose freedom for themselves. The pace of progress will vary from nation to nation.

The speech does not mean that Bush will always live up to his standard. But the bias in American foreign policy will shift away from stability and toward reform. It will be harder to cozy up to Arab dictators because they can supposedly help us in the war on terror. It will be clearer that those dictators are not the antidotes to terror; they're the disease.

Does he believe this? (So asks Belle Waring at Crooked Timber, where I found the link.) Has Bush, in any way, done anything that might indicate this kind of a shift? He still supports strongmen if they're our strongmen - he hasn't done anythign to challenge Putin. He hasn't done much to challenge any dictators we don't like, if they have the means to defend himself. Is anything going to change?

Bush's speech is, in fact, just more of the same - repeating the words - freedom, freedom, freedom - as if they meant anything. But mostly, just making people feel good about their country so they won't think too much about what their country is actually doing. To imagine Bush suddenly adopting Jimmy Carter's foreign policy, even its underlying rhetoric (in anything approaching an honest manner) is fantastic.

And finally - the proof is in the pudding. And Bush's first term definitely supports the idea that "The real America . . . is the money-grubbing, resource-wasting, TV-drenched, unreflective bimbo of the earth. The high-toned language, the anti-Americans say, is just a cover for the quest for oil, or the desire for riches, dominion and war." One thing Brooks has right - or would have right if anyone anywhere took one word Bush says at face value - is that Bush's speeches should hold us to ahigher standard. But - unless we meet that higher standard - people will take his words as the blather they are. And - unless something very drastic has changed - there is almost no possibility at all that the policy Brooks talks about will be followed, not by this administration....

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