The Matter of Bush's 'Idealism'

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In
the wake of the President’s exuberant inaugural address last
week, gurgles and slurps were heard across the fruited media plain
with regard to his soaring rhetoric. While the policy implications
were certainly critically examined, the President was largely lauded
for his “idealistic” commitment to “spreading democracy.”
And then there was that inspiring little matter of “ending
tyranny.” Well, we haven’t quite “ended evil”
yet, as neocons Richard Perle and Douglas Feith promised in their
recent book, but I’m sure were working on that too.

The
president’s neoconservative advisors routinely trace their
“idealism” to the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson
also indulged in lofty rhetorical flourishes to build public support
for war. Not only to “make the world safe for democracy,”
but to “end all war” as well.

Yes,
Mr. Wilson went to the Paris Peace Conference with his 14 Points,
promising “self-determination” to the peoples of Central
Europe and all of the rest of it. At home, Papa Idealism also did
some trust-busting and he imposed the first income tax on the wealthy.

With
regard to what FDR’s Secretary of War Henry Stimson would later
call “our little region over here which never has bothered
anybody,u201D namely Latin America, Wilson sent the marines into the
oil-rich region near the Mexican city of Veracruz in 1914, followed
up by the occupation of Haiti in the following year. A mere two
decades later, the latter “liberation” ended up as a bloody
counter-insurgency war. At last, one begins to understand the neocon
affinity for Mr. Wilson’s foreign policy.

LA
Times staff writer Doyle McManus, writing on January 22nd, elicited
a suggestive quote from Dimitri Simes, the president of the Nixon
Center. “If Bush means it [the rhetoric of the inaugural address]
literally, then it means we have an extremist in the White House…
I hope and pray that he didn’t mean it.” Mr. Simes has acutely
and accurately diagnosed the problem. Mr. McManus, presumably with
a wink and a nod, elaborated that the Nixon Center is “a conservative
think tank that reveres the less idealistic policies of Richard
Nixon.” Yes, the illegal secret carpet-bombing of Cambodia
in 1970 was something less than idealistic.

Thankfully,
however, the bad old days of realism in foreign affairs are behind
us, as Condi Rice made clear in an April 2002 speech at Johns Hopkins
University. “An earthquake of the magnitude of 9/11 can shift
the tectonic plates of international politics… if the collapse
of the Soviet Union and 9/11 bookend a major shift in international
politics, then this is a period not just of grave danger, but of
enormous opportunity. Before the clay is dry again, America and
our friends and our allies must move decisively to take advantage
of these new opportunities.” So many opportunities to be capitalized
upon the corpses of 2,800 Americans, so little time.

Another
well-intentioned Bush administration dreamer, Jay Garner, Iraq’s
first proconsul, made this quaint remark in a February 2004 interview
with National Journal reporters. "Look back on the Philippines
around the turn of the 20th century: they were a coaling station
for the navy, and that allowed us to keep a great presence in the
Pacific. That's what Iraq is for the next few decades: our coaling
station that gives us great presence in the Middle East."

If
this is idealism, what might cynicism sound like? In colloquial
political usage, most people associate with “idealism”
a noble striving for an end that extends to the greatest number
the greatest good, without particular concern for pragmatic considerations.
Is “idealism” then really an accurate term to describe
what the Bush administration represents, either at home or abroad?

Now
that the election is safely past, it is dawning on more and more
Americans that we are entering dangerous waters. While the Bush
administration’s rhetoric may sound idealistic, its policy
choices are delusional. The 18th-Century Enlightenment philosopher
Voltaire characterized the tension between rhetoric and action this
way. “As long as people believe in absurdities they will continue
to commit atrocities.”

February
8, 2005

Stephen
Bender [send him mail] is a writer based in San Francisco. You can
find more of his work at his
website
.

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