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The Matter of Bush's 'Idealism'

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.