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 attacked interventions based on human rights on the grounds that national security should be our overriding concern in foreign affairs. Some might say of his turnabout, "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. But 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.
International institutions are the means, albeit imperfect ones, of upholding democratic principles in the international arena. To say that America will spread democracy unilaterally -- and by force, if necessary, as in Iraq -- is to undermine the larger framework that democracies need. Establishing democracy by unilateral force is even a step beyond preemptive or preventive war. It is war by American prerogative.
Certainly the United States and its allies ought to promote democracy. When the president spoke of "Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom" in the Mideast, he was being unduly modest about the West's contribution. Western countries helped to create undemocratic governments in the region and for years propped them up. If democracy is now our goal, there is a step short of war we can take: We can stop supporting undemocratic regimes.
But there is, of course, a risk in such a policy that the president fails to acknowledge. More democratic Arab governments would not necessarily be pro-American. According to public-opinion surveys, the policies Bush has pursued have drawn overwhelming popular opposition in Arab countries, as in other parts of the world. If Arab governments were more representative, they would be even more likely to condemn America's efforts to throw its weight around the region. So widespread is the hostility to America that even Western-oriented Arab liberals responded warily to Bush's speech for fear of being labeled American stooges.
In foreign policy there is a place for idealism, but not for illusions. To judge from his Nov. 6 speech, Bush lives in a blissful state where the "plan of heaven," the design of nature, the tides of history and the forces of progress are perfectly aligned. All favor democracy and liberty as well as American interests and policies, the very policies that the president himself is promoting. It is a magical vision, and perhaps Bush sincerely believes it. But for a great power, it is a dangerous fantasy that could isolate us from our friends, sacrifice the true basis of our security and plunge us into new wars.