President Bush on Tuesday gave what will probably be taken as one of his major foreign policy speeches, at the National Defense University in Washington: Bush's Remarks on Conflicts in the Middle East Washington Post 03/08/05. He proclaimed recent democratic developments in Afghanistan and various Arab countries as the realization of his vision of democracy advancing under American military pressure, a democratic movement that will improve the chances of peace.
While he spoke, tens of thousands of Hizbollah supporters in Lebanon demonstrated in favor of Syrian influence in their country. Just the day before, tens of thousands of Italians turned out in the rain to pay tribute to Nicolo Calipari, the Italian intelligence agency shot and killed by American troops how fired on the car carrying him and the journalist (Guiliana Sgrena) he had just freed from captivity and was bringing to safety.
On Tuesday, Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini was telling the Italian parliament that the US had been fully informed about Calipari's mission to bring Sgrena out, that the Italian team was driving at a moderate speed and that they had the internal lights of the car on so that the soldiers could see the passengers more clearly. Though he rejected suggestions that the attack may have been a deliberate attempt to kill Sgrena, his statement contradicts the Pentagon's position that it's all the Italians' fault.
The substance of style
I try not to focus to much on purely stylistic issues. The significance of a presidential address like this is usually more in the commentary and interpretations that follow it.
But, having watched this speech live on TV, I was struck at what a jarring disconnect Bush's comportment presents to the words coming out of his mouth. During this speech, there was hardly a second that his trademark preppy smirk was absent. Yet the speech was addressing the most serious questions of war and peace, of sacrifice and national policy. The words were meant to be from Bush the Magnificent, Liberator of Peoples and Hooder of the Unrighteous. Buthis facial expression was more fitting for a humorous presentation at the National Press Club than for a major foreign policy address.
Bush could takea lesson in that regard from one of the Republican Party's major idols, Ronald Reagan. Reagan, the professional actor, could deliver serious lines with a serious comportment. When he stood in front of the Berlin Wall and called on "Mr. Gorbachev" to "tear down this wall," he didn't stand there with a "gotcha" grin on his face.
Is democracy sweeping the Mulsim world?
The Bush administration has become accustomed the last four years plus to a lazy, complacent mainstream press corps and a powerful Republican echo chamber. So Bush and his advisers probably figure they aren't taking much risk in holding up some very tenuous developments as being signs of the success of the Bush Doctrine of preventive wars of liberation. If subsequent events take a nasty turn, the Republicans' Mighty Wurlitzer of an echo chamber will simply go on proclaiming the greatness and wisdom of Dear Leader and not worry about those pesky "reality-based" annoyances.
Before looking at some of the grand phrases that doting Foxists will quote fondly, let's look at what Bush is claiming about recent democratic advances.
Afghanistan: Bush and his supporters routinely refer to Afghanistan as though it had become as democratic as Switzerland or the Netherlands. But the "national" government in Afghanistan essentially exercises power only in the capital city of Kabul. And even there, it relies on a NATO force to keep it in power. Opium is the major crop, much of which winds up in the veins of European junkies. Real power in most parts of the country lies with local warlords. The citizens are largely destitute. Thousands of American troops remain in-country, on a seemingly endless search for Al Qaeda. For the most part, conditions are not much different than those that gave rise to the Taliban and made Afghanistan a "failed state" where international terrorist bands could operate with minimal interference.
Iraq: The January 30 elections were a brilliant success. Mission accomplished. Other Iraqi elections this year should take place"without external influence." Great! When are our troops coming home? (For more on the election, check out the Juan Cole article I discussed here.) And we all need to remember that right now in Iraq, the security situation is so bad that the amount of independent news reporting we're getting on the situation there is very limited.
Palestine: Yassir Arafat died. There were new elections. Israel is saying they are ready to move forward with a peace settlement. But this won't happen unless Bush is willing to stay actively involved in those negotiations and defy his Christian Right core supporters to insist that Ariel Sharon's government evacuate the West Bank settlements. Bush in his National Defense University speech said only that Israel should freeze the West Bank settlements. Democracy in the Palestinian Authority and democracy in Israel are not enough to bring peace. There has to be a real settlement of the outstanding issues, of which the West Bank Israeli settlements are the most intractable.
Lebanon: Bush seems to proclaiming the dawn of a new day of democracy and freedom in Lebanon. Maybe. But will democracy produce more peace and stability? Or will it push the rightwing Christians, the Druze, Sunni Muslims and the militant Shia Hizbollah toward the kind of conflict that produced the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s? Hizbollah is one of the largest political parties in Lebanon, and will play a big role in any elections that take place there. And Hizbollah is pro-Syrian. See The "Cedar Revolution" meets Hezbollah by Mitchell Prothero Salon 03/05/05
Bush also mentioned municipal elections in Saudi Arabia and Egypt's supposedly multiparty presidential elections coming up in September as further examples of the march of freedom in Muslim countries. But both of those are little more than public-relations window dressing. Iran's elections, by virtually all accounts, are far more democratic than PR ploys like those in Saudia Arabia and Egypt.
The grand vision of liberation
The rest of the speech was largely devoted to grand pronouncements, which of course are subject to various interpretations. There were demands that Syria get out of Lebanon, that Iran give up any designs on a nuclear weapon and that Arab countries establish normal relations with Israel. But a couple of the more general portions struck me.
Twice in six decades a sudden attack on the United States launched our country into a global conflict and began a period of serious reflection on America's place in the world.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor taught America that unopposed tyranny, even on faraway continents, could draw our country into a struggle for our own survival. And our reflection on that lesson led us to help build peaceful democracies in the ruins of tyranny, to unite free nations in the NATO alliance, and to establish a firm commitment to peace in the Pacific that continues to this day.
The attacks of September 11, 2001, also revealed the outlines of a new world.
But Bush's "new world" looks an awful lot like the Cold War. In particular, terrorism is seen as a creature of "rogue states," as this passage shows:
In another way, September the 11th provided a warning of future dangers, of terror networks aided by outlaw regimes and ideologies that incite the murder of the innocent, and biological and chemical and nuclear weapons that multiply destructive power. [my emphasis]
Muslim terrorism as such was not a topic for discussion. "Al Qaeda" was mentioned a few times in passing. Osama bin Forgotten was not mentioned at all. Making ports more secure? Making aircraft cargo holds bomb-proof? Improving the public health network's ability to respond to a biological attack? Forget it. The War on Terror is a war of liberation against whatever rogue states the White House decides to target.
There are certainly aspects about the packaging at least of Bush's policy of promoting democracy. This part near the end of his speech captures how most Americans would like to imagine the United States is seen in the rest of the world:
One Iraqi soldier commented, "These people have come 10,000 miles to help my country. They've left their families and their children. If we can give them something back, just a little, we can show our thanks."
America is proud to defend freedom in Iraq. And America is proud to stand with the brave Iraqis as they defend their own freedom.
The fact that Bush's crusade in Iraq has looked a lot more like attempting to bomb, shoot and torture the Iraqi into an American version of freedom will not trouble those who sneer at the "reality-based community."
Bush linked his foreign policy to the democratic-missionary spirit that has undoubtedly been a major theme in American foreign policy:
We're also determined to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.
This objective will not be achieved easily or all at once or primarily by force of arms. We know that freedom by definition must be chosen and that the democratic institutions of other nations will not look like our own.
Yet we also know that our security increasingly depends on the hope and progress of other nations now simmering in despair and resentment.
And that hope and progress is found only in the advance of freedom.
This advance is a consistent theme of American strategy, from the 14 Points, to the Four Freedoms, to the Marshall Plan, to the Reagan doctrine.
Yet the success of this approach does not depend on grand strategy alone. We are confident that the desire for freedom, even when repressed for generations, is present in every human heart.
The limits of democracy
The idea that Democracy is some kind of guarantee of peace, stability and freedom is a pretty one. In the long run, I suspect that it's true. As time goes on, I think more and more that the most important thing about democracy is the limitations it puts on the ambitions of imperial strategists, warmongers and war profiteers. Ordinary people don't like war very much.
On the other hand, anyone who thinks democracies can't be caught up in patriotic fervor and support unnecessary wars must have been living in another dimension in March-April 2003, when the United States went to war to get Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction.
Juan Cole just this week discussed the flaw of assuming that dictatorships as such have produced Islamic radicalism, a favorite neoconservative idea that was prominent in Bush's National Defense University speech: Foreign Occupation has Produced Radical Muslim Terrorism Informed Comment 03/07/05. And one situation he mentions is particularly important:
The Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s was among the biggest generators of radical Muslim terrorism in modern history. The US abetted this phenomenon, giving billions to the radical Muslim ideologues at the top of Pakistani military intelligence (Inter-Services Intelligence), which in turn doled the money out to men like Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, a member of the Afghanistan Muslim Brotherhood (Jami'at-i Islami) who used to throw vials of acid at the faces of unveiled girls in the Kabul of the 1970s. The US also twisted the arm of the Saudi government to match its contributions to the Mujahidin. Saudi Intelligence Minister Turki al-Faisal was in charge of recruiting Arab volunteers to fight alongside the Mujahidin, and he brought in young Usamah bin Laden as a fundraiser. The CIA training camps that imparted specialized tradecraft to the Mujahidin inevitably also ended up training, at least at second hand, the Arab volunteers, who learned about forming covert cells, practicing how to blow things up, etc. The "Afghan Arabs" fanned back to their homelands, to Algeria, Libya, Yemen, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, carrying with them the ethos that Ronald Reagan had inspired them with, which held that they should take up arms against atheist Westerners who attempted to occupy Muslim lands.
There's no guarantee that a democratic regime in Iran would be less ambitious to acquire nuclear weapons, or that a democratic Syria would stop supporting anti-Israeli guerrillas and/or terrorists. The American war of liberation in Iraq seems at the moment to be giving birth to a more democratic, Shia-dominated government. But it has also had a galvanizing effect on the jihadist groups similar to what the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan had. And it has provided them an important training ground, just as Afghanistan did in the 1980s.
The reality of sacrifice
Bush did mention the sacrifice of American soldiers in recent years, as well he should. But, quite unlike the Second World War, he's not willing to ask Americans, especially wealthier Americans, to make any kind of sacrifices for the wars of liberation he says are critical to the security of the United States.
The truth of it is that Bush has pushed about as far as he can with his noboby-sacrifices-but-the-soldiers approach to his ambitious foreign policy. The huge deficits from his tax cuts for the richest Americans and from the Iraq War are driving down the dollar and seriously threatening US economic clout abroad.
And one reason I'm not more alarmed about the prospect of this administration invading Iran and Syria is that those are simply not serious threats until the armed forces are expanded by hundreds of thousands of combat troops. That will not happen without massive conscription, i.e., the draft.
Phil Carter and Paul Glastris address this issue in The Case for the Draft Washington Monthly March 2005. In order to maintain the kind of aggressive global policy the US is pursuing, they argue, a draft is indispensible:
But there's a deeper problem, one that any president who chose to invade a country the size of Iraq would have faced. In short, America's all-volunteer military simply cannot deploy and sustain enough troops to succeed in places like Iraq while still deterring threats elsewhere in the world. Simply adding more soldiers to the active duty force, as some in Washington are now suggesting, may sound like a good solution. But it's not, for sound operational and pragmatic reasons. America doesn't need a bigger standing army; it needs a deep bench of trained soldiers held in reserve who can be mobilized to handle the unpredictable but inevitable wars and humanitarian interventions of the future. And while there are several ways the all-volunteer force can create some extra surge capacity, all of them are limited.
The only effective solution to the manpower crunch is the one America has turned to again and again in its history: the draft. Not the mass combat mobilizations of World War II, nor the inequitable conscription of Vietnam—for just as threats change and war-fighting advances, so too must the draft. A modernized draft would demand that the privileged participate. It would give all who serve a choice over how they serve. And it would provide the military, on a “just in time” basis, large numbers of deployable ground troops, particularly the peacekeepers we'll need to meet the security challenges of the 21st century.
They pose the choice in stark terms: "America has a choice. It can be the world's superpower, or it can maintain the current all-volunteer military, but it probably can't do both." Will Bush continue to pursue his policy to press for democratization, including a credible threat of wars of liberation against targeted countries? Or will he stick to the Republican Party's core mission of comforting the comfortable?
It seems to be getting harder and harder to avoid the choice.