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Mr. Bush, you’re no Woodrow Wilson!
By William Fisher
I listened to President Bush’s speech to the National Endowment for Democracy last week (Nov. 6). The speech was well delivered. The language was eloquent. The vision was sweeping -- almost Wilsonian. Yet when I put the man and the words together, I somehow felt hollow, disappointed, uninspired. Then the light went on: I found I couldn’t believe that the President actually believed a single word he said. What I heard told me more about White House strategists and speechwriters than it did about the messenger.
I can understand the sense of urgency among White House spinmeisters to try to restore the post 9/11 confidence of the American people in their leader. But the whole performance left me with the sinking feeling that this was merely the latest chapter in the vast White House conspiracy to get the President looking Presidential again. Maybe the President is sincere; I hope so. But the speech didn’t work for me. And the reason was the credibility thing. The American people – and the rest of the world -- have been misled too many times.
We invaded Afghanistan, threw the bad guys out, promised billions to catch Osama and rebuild the country – and then did neither. We repackaged a bunch of mostly old ideas and came up with a ‘roadmap’ for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The President promised to remain personally engaged, and then didn’t. We attacked Iraq – an ‘imminent threat’ to our national security – following one of the truly colossal diplomatic failures in our history. No matter, we were told, we had a ‘coalition of the willing’, including such mighty allies as Portugal and Guinea. We were going to find and destroy Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, including his imported uranium. We didn’t. Or maybe our mission was to find and capture an unspeakable despot? We haven’t. We were told we were not at war with Islam; then every Muslim not nailed down was rounded up by Mr. Bush’s Department of Justice. We were told that Iraq’s oil would pay for it’s the country’s reconstruction; $20 billion later, we have reason to suspect that isn’t going to happen. We were told our service men and women would be welcomed as heroes, so the post-war plan we had must have been for some other war. Today, our heroes are in a shooting gallery. Or maybe our real reason for going to war was to bring democracy to Iraq, even though nation-building has always been a dirty word in this Administration.
Now, having consistently equated nation-building with something more awful than the plague, the President is proposing to bring democracy not only to Iraq, but to the entire Middle East – the neighborhood of theocratic and authoritarian governments we have cozied up to for half a century and supported with billions of dollars in US aid funds.
The President said: “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export...Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. This strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before. And it will yield the same results. As in Europe, as in Asia, as in every region of the world, the advance of freedom leads to peace... The advance of freedom is the calling of our time; it is the calling of our country. From the Fourteen Points to the Four Freedoms, to the Speech at Westminster, America has put our power at the service of principle…We believe that freedom -- the freedom we prize -- is not for us alone, it is the right and the capacity of all mankind….”
Right, no argument there. But just how is the President going to do all this? Cut off aid to the sinners? Increase aid to foster democracy and civil society? Work with the UN? Make preemptive strikes? Well, Mr. Bush’s speech was a tad short on details. Like none. This speech, White House spinners told reporters, was about the vision, not the details.
So, to try to calibrate the probabilities of this vision ever becoming reality, the only thing we have to go on is Mr. Bush’s past record of keeping his promises and telling us the truth. On that basis, we will be waiting a very long time for Saudi Arabia’s first presidential primary!
When the President finished his speech, I somehow found myself thinking back twenty-five years, to the televised debate between vice presidential candidates Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle. Fast-forward to the present and you can almost hear Sen. Bentsen saying to our current President roughly the same words Sen. Bentsen used regarding John F. Kennedy: “Mr. Bush, I knew Woodrow Wilson, and you’re no Woodrow Wilson.”
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The author is an international economic development professional, having worked in many of the countries of the Middle East for the US Department of State and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration.