January 26, 2005
Democracy and the Bush Doctrine
By Charles R. Kesler

George W. Bush’s first presidency, devoted to compassionate conservatism and to establishing his own bona fides, lasted less than eight months. On September 11, 2001, he was reborn as a War President. In the upheaval that followed, compassionate conservatism took a back seat to a new, more urgent formulation of the Bush Administration’s purpose.

The Bush Doctrine called for offensive operations, including preemptive war, against terrorists and their abetters—more specifically, against the regimes that had sponsored, encouraged, or merely tolerated any “terrorist group of global reach.” Afghanistan, the headquarters of al-Qaeda and its patron the Taliban, was the new doctrine’s first beneficiary, although the president soon declared Iraq, Iran, and North Korea (to be precise, “states like these, and their terrorist allies”) an “axis of evil” meriting future attention. In his stirring words, the United States would “not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most dangerous weapons.”

The administration’s preference for offensive operations reflected a long-standing conservative interest in taking the ideological and military fight to our foes. After all, the Reagan Doctrine had not only indicted Soviet Communism as an evil empire but had endeavored to subvert its hold on the satellite countries and, eventually, on its own people. The Bush Administration’s focus on the states backing the terrorists implied that “regime change” would be necessary, once again, in order to secure America against its enemies. The policy did not contemplate merely the offending regimes’ destruction, however. As in the 1980s, regime change implied their replacement by something better, and the Bush Doctrine soon expanded to accommodate the goal of planting freedom and democracy in their stead.

Captive Nations
On this point, the Bush Doctrine parted company with the Reagan Doctrine. Although the Reagan Administration’s CIA and other agencies had worked to build civil society and to support democratic opposition groups in Eastern Europe, Central America, and other strategic regions, these efforts were directed mostly to helping “captive nations” escape their captivity. That is, they presupposed a latent opposition against foreign, usually Soviet, oppression, or as in the satellite and would-be satellite countries, against domestic oppressors supported by the Soviets. The Russian people themselves counted as a kind of captive nation enslaved to Marxism’s foreign ideology, and Reagan did not flinch from calling for their liberation, too. He always rejected a philosophical détente between democracy and totalitarianism in favor of conducting a vigorous moral and intellectual offensive against Communist principles.

But as a practical matter, the Reagan Doctrine aimed primarily at supporting labor unions, churches, and freedom fighters at the Soviet empire’s periphery—e.g., Poland, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Grenada—rather than at its core. Even in these cases, the Administration regarded its chief duty to be helping to liberate the captive nations, that is, expelling the Soviets and defeating their proxies, rather than presiding over a proper democratization of the liberated peoples. Not unreasonably, the Reaganites thought that to those freed from totalitarian oppression, America’s example would be shining enough, especially when joined to their visceral, continuing hatred for the Soviet alternative.

In countries where bad or tyrannical regimes were homegrown or unconnected with America’s great totalitarian enemy, the administration’s efforts in support of democratization were quieter and more limited still. These involved diplomatic pressure, election-monitoring, and occasional gestures of overt support, such as the administration’s endorsement of “people power” in the Philippines. Most importantly, Reagan wanted to avoid the Carter Administration’s hubris in condemning the imperfect regimes of America’s friends, while neglecting the incomparably worse sins of America’s foes.

The distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, classically restated by Jeane Kirkpatrick in her article that caught Reagan’s eye, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” provided intellectual support for his administration’s policies. Authoritarian regimes, like Iran’s Shah or Nicaragua’s Somoza, though unsavory, were less oppressive than totalitarian ones, Kirkpatrick argued. What’s more, countries with homegrown monarchs, dictators, or generalissimos were far more likely to moderate and perhaps even democratize themselves than were societies crushed by totalitarian governments. And it was this potential of non-democratic but also non-totalitarian states to change their regimes for the better, in their own good time, that helped to justify America’s benign neglect of or, at most, episodic concern with their domestic politics. Once freed from the totalitarian threat, countries like Nicaragua or Afghanistan could more or less be trusted to their own devices.

The wave of democratization that occurred in the 1980s, especially in Asia and South America, seemed to confirm the wisdom of the administration’s approach. Even when America was called to play a role, as it was in the Philippines, our intervention was short and sweet, confined mainly to persuading Ferdinand Marcos to leave office.

By comparison, the Bush Doctrine puts the democratization of once totalitarian, quondam authoritarian, and persistently tribal societies at the center of its objectives. The case of Afghanistan shows, to be sure, that the Reagan Doctrine had its drawbacks. Left to itself, Afghanistan after the Soviets’ withdrawal did not resume its former ways, at least not for long, and certainly did not evolve into a democracy. Instead, it succumbed to the Taliban’s peculiar Islamic totalitarianism. Nevertheless, the Bush Administration’s policy is not merely to expunge the totalitarians there and in Iraq, but to ensure that they never return by reconstructing their societies along democratic lines. Authoritarianism (at least in the Middle East) is no longer acceptable. The U.S. now proposes to liberate these nations from the captivity of their own unhappy traditions.

So far as it goes, that policy, or some version of it, might be justified by the circumstances and stakes of U.S. involvement, even as the American refoundings of Germany and Japan after the Second World War were justified on prudential grounds. Occasionally, the Bush Administration makes this kind of argument. (The analogies are not exact, of course—about which more anon.) But usually this claim is mixed up with a very different one that is more characteristic of the Bush Doctrine as such: America’s supposed duty, as the result of our respect for human rights, to help the Iraqis and others realize their democratic entitlement and destiny.

Rights and Republicanism
Political scientists James W. Ceaser and Daniel DiSalvol draw attention to this dimension of the Bush Doctrine when they observe, in a recent issue of The Public Interest, that “President Bush has identified the Republican party with a distinct foreign policy, which he has justified by recourse to certain fixed and universal principles—namely that, in his words, ‘liberty is the design of nature’ and that ‘freedom is the right and the capacity of all mankind.’”

Bush’s appeal, in their words, to “the universality of democracy and human rights” is a watershed moment in the history of American politics, with enormous significance for the Republican Party and the conservative movement. “Not since Lincoln has the putative head of the Republican party so actively sought to ground the party in a politics of natural right.”

Bush’s revival of natural or human rights as the foundation of political morality is welcome, and should be taken seriously. Like Lincoln, Bush is, in his own way, looking to the American Founding for guidance in charting his course through the dire circumstances that confront him. But there is, in his use of these noble ideas, a certain ambiguity or confusion between the natural right to be free and the capacity to be free. The two are not quite the same.

The founders affirmed that every human being has, by nature, a right to be free. Unless men were endowed by nature with a certain minimum of faculties, inclinations, and powers, that right would be nugatory. Taken together, those endowments—which include reason, an access to morality (variously traced to reason, conscience, or the moral sense), a spirited love of freedom for its own sake, passions (especially the powerful desire for self-preservation), and physical strength—constitute the capacity or natural potential for human freedom. But this potential needs to be made actual, needs to be awakened by practice and habit.

James Madison, for example, writes in The Federalist of “that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.” In the largest sense, those experiments aim to prove whether the latent capacity of mankind for self-government can, at last, after centuries of slumber, be activated, realized, and confirmed by the conduct of the American people—in particular, by their ratification of the newly proposed Constitution. Alexander Hamilton underlines the point in that work’s famous opening paragraph: “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”

The human right to be free, in other words, does not guarantee the human capacity to be free. That capacity must be elicited and demonstrated, and its noblest and most persuasive proof is by the establishment of “good government,” along with the habits necessary to perpetuate it; the habits of heart and mind that, among other things, allow a people’s “choice” to be guided by “reflection.”

Notice, too, that the founders are not content with (merely) democratic regimes, i.e., with governments that hold elections and empower majorities to rule. The test of mankind’s political capacity is that its self-government should culminate in good government, in regimes that not only have elections but actually achieve the common good and secure the rights of individuals, whether or not they belong to the ruling majority. This blend of constitutionalism and republicanism is extremely difficult to attain. Well acquainted with the history of failed republican regimes, the founders by and large thought it the most difficult of all forms of government to establish and preserve. Hence good, republican government is an achievement, not an entitlement.

The Limits of Regime Change
Thus even with the improvements in political science celebrated by Madison, Hamilton, and the other founders, most of them never expected republican government to spread easily and universally across the globe. Though fervent believers in universal moral principles, they knew that these had to be approximated differently in different political situations. In this sense, they were students of Montesquieu and Aristotle, who taught that governments have to be suited to a people’s character and conditions.

None of this implies, of course, that dramatic political change is not possible. America’s founders could not have been founders if they did not think regime change possible and, in their own case, desirable. Founding is possible because culture is not destiny; politics can reshape a nation’s culture. But they knew also that no founding is completely de novo. Every attempt at regime change begins from the existing habits and beliefs of the people for whom you are trying to found a new way of life. Accordingly, the founders would have been cautious, to say the least, about America’s ability to transform Iraqis into good democrats.

In the last century, we saw in the cases of Germany and Japan that it is possible to remake even Nazi and imperial Japanese institutions into democratic regimes. But these are really exceptions that prove the rule that it is very difficult to pull off this kind of transformation. Germany and Japan were exceptional, first, because the U.S. and its allies had beaten them into complete submission. Then we occupied them for decades—not merely for months or years, but for the better part of a half-century. And both were civilizations that had the advantage of having enjoyed beforehand a high standard of living, widespread literacy, and considerable political openness. Besides, America was reorganizing them at the beginning of the Cold War, when circumstances compelled them, as it were, to choose between the West, with its democratic institutions, and the East, with its bleak tyranny.

To his credit, President Bush recognizes the difficulty of the task in Iraq. He acknowledged to the National Endowment for Democracy that “the progress of liberty is a powerful trend,” but that “liberty, if not defended, can be lost. The success of freedom,” he said, “is not determined by some dialectic of history.” In his elegant speech at Whitehall Palace, he affirmed that “freedom, by definition, must be chosen and defended by those who choose it.” And he warned that “democratic development” will not come swiftly, or smoothly, to the Middle East, any more than it did to America and Europe.

Nonetheless, he finds strong support for the “global expansion of democracy” in human nature itself. “In our conflict with terror and tyranny,” he said at Whitehall, “we have an unmatched advantage, a power that cannot be resisted, and that is the appeal of freedom to all mankind.” In a speech in Cincinnati, he declared, “People everywhere prefer freedom to slavery; prosperity to squalor; self-government to the rule of terror and torture.” Aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, after announcing that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” he said, “Men and women in every culture need liberty like they need food and water and air.”

Democratic Feeling
Here he stumbles. It is one thing to affirm, as the American Founders did, that there is in the human soul a love of liberty. It is another thing entirely to assert that this love is the main or, more precisely, the naturally predominant inclination in human nature, that it is “a power that cannot be resisted.” In fact, it is often resisted and quite frequently bested, commonly for the sake of the “food and water and air” that human nature craves, too. The president downplays the contests within human nature: conflicts between reason and passion, and within reason and passion, that the human soul’s very freedom makes inescapable. True enough, “people everywhere prefer freedom to slavery,” that is, to their own slavery, but many people everywhere and at all times have been quite happy to enjoy their freedom and all the benefits of someone else’s slavery.

In his 2002 State of the Union Address, one of his best speeches, he amplified his point. “All fathers and mothers, in all societies, want their children to be educated and live free from poverty and violence. No people on earth yearn to be oppressed, or aspire to servitude, or eagerly await the midnight knock of the secret police.” There is truth in the president’s words, but not the whole truth. No one may want to be oppressed, but from this it does not follow that no one yearns to oppress. The love that parents feel for their children does not necessarily transfer to benevolence, much less equal solicitude, for the children of others. This is why “do unto others” is not a moral rule automatically or easily observed. This is why, when Abraham Lincoln distilled his moral teaching to its essence, he did not confine himself to the wrongness of slavery simply. “As I would not be a slave,” he wrote, “so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is not democracy.”

In other words, that “people everywhere” or “all fathers and mothers” have the same feelings for themselves and their own kind does not (at least not yet) make them believers in human equality, human rights, or democracy. President Bush, in effect, plants his account of democracy in common or shared human passions, particularly the tender passions of family love, not in reason’s recognition of a rule for the passions. He does not insist, as Lincoln and the founders did, that democracy depends on the mutual recognition of rights and duties, grounded in an objective, natural order that is independent of human will. Bush makes it easy to be a democrat, and thus makes it easier for the whole world to become democratic.

History and Culture
Yet democracy based on feelings or compassion has obvious limits. What takes the place of the rigorous moral teaching that once lifted compassion to the level of justice? What summons forth the embattled statesmanship and republican striving that sustain democracy, especially in crises? Despite his comments that democratic progress is not inevitable and that “the success of freedom is not determined by some dialectic of history,” Bush finds himself appealing again and again to a kind of providential or historical support for democracy. In the same speech in which he uttered the words just quoted, he concluded by saying: “We believe that liberty is the design of nature; we believe that liberty is the direction of history.”

At Goree Island, Senegal, the slave ships’ point of departure from Africa, Bush declared:

We know that these challenges can be overcome, because history moves in the direction of justice. The evils of slavery were accepted and unchanged for centuries. Yet, eventually, the human heart would not abide them. There is a voice of conscience and hope in every man and woman that will not be silenced—what Martin Luther King called a certain kind of fire that no water could put out.... This untamed fire of justice continues to burn in the affairs of man, and it lights the way before us.

In this eloquent address, the president praises the role that John Quincy Adams and Lincoln, among others, played in the fight against slavery, but he salutes their “moral vision” as though that alone had been sufficient to doom the peculiar institution. In his words, “Their moral vision caused Americans to examine our hearts, to correct our Constitution, and to teach our children the dignity and equality of every person of every race.” What happened to the Civil War, not to mention Jim Crow? Bush leaves the impression that “history moves in the direction of justice,” and that once Americans were awakened to the Truth, they went with the flow. Yet the anti-slavery cause, at least in Lincoln’s mind, did not depend in the slightest on history’s support for the triumph of free labor and free men. Rather, it was a very close issue, requiring for its resolution all of Lincoln’s genius and the Union’s resources, not forgetting a considerable measure of good luck. And the triumph, so dearly won, soon gave way to tragedy and renewed tyranny in the South.

Bush’s position recalls the important recent dispute between Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington. Huntington insists that, after the Cold War, international politics will be marked by the inevitable clash of civilizations, e.g., between the Islamic and non-Islamic nations. Fukuyama argues that history is overcoming all such cultural clashes and culminating in liberal democracy, which is destined to spread all over the world. In this dispute, Bush seems to be firmly on Fukuyama’s side. At West Point, the president explained, “The 20th century ended with a single surviving model of human progress, based on non-negotiable demands of human dignity, the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women and private property and free speech and equal justice and religious tolerance.... When it comes to the common rights and needs of men and women,” he said, “there is no clash of civilizations.”

If not dialectical, Bush’s account of history certainly seems Darwinian; history has winnowed itself down to a “single surviving model of human progress.” He dismisses doubts that the Middle East will grow increasingly democratic as narrow-minded, if not downright prejudiced. From his 2004 State of the Union Address: “[I]t is mistaken, and condescending, to assume that whole cultures and great religions are incompatible with liberty and self-government. I believe that God has planted in every human heart the desire to live in freedom.” Yes, but the question is whether some cultures and religions are less compatible with freedom and democracy than others, and if so, how in his second term the president ought to adjust our foreign policy. Granted, too, that God has implanted in men a love of freedom, but cultures, rulers, and religions each diffract that love, accentuating, obscuring, or perverting it. Bush calls those who raise such contentions “skeptics of democracy,” when in fact they are skeptical mostly of his easy-going account of democracy.

James Q. Wilson, with his usual insight and learning, takes an empirical look in the December Commentary at the relation between Islam and freedom. He declines to inspect Islam and democracy, on the grounds that there are too few examples from which to generalize and that, in the long run, personal liberty is more important. From liberty, liberal democracy may spring; democracy without liberty is despotic (Fareed Zakaria’s recent book, Illiberal Democracy, reinforces this point). Wilson proffers Turkey, Indonesia, and Morocco as reasonably liberal Muslim states; of these only one, Morocco, is both Muslim and Arab. What these cases have in common, he suggests, is a “powerful and decisive leader” who can “detach religion from politics”; an army that “has stood decisively for secular rule and opposed efforts to create an Islamist state” (a condition that Morocco does not quite meet); the absence of “a significant ethnic minority” demanding independence; and the lack of major conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

Iraq shares none of these advantages. Straining to find some cause for optimism, Wilson notes that in one opinion poll more than 75% of Iraqis express support for liberties like free speech and freedom of religion. In the same poll, about 40% endorse a European-style parliamentary democracy.

Rethinking the Doctrine
In this vein, it is heartening to see elections in Afghanistan, with thousands upon thousands lining up to vote. It is encouraging, too, that elections are about to be held for the new Iraqi national assembly. As the president says, “it is the practice of democracy that makes a nation ready for democracy, and every nation can start on this path.” But not every nation will finish it, because democracy is not just a matter of elections. Democracy requires that majorities restrain themselves and practice sometimes disagreeable tasks out of respect for law and for their fellow citizens. These tasks, in turn, require a willingness to trust one’s fellow citizens that comes hard to tribal societies, whose members are not used to trusting anyone who is not at least a cousin.

Of course, it is a wonderful thing to hear President Bush reassert the natural-rights basis of just government and, incidentally, of the Republican Party. As against today’s shallow culture of liberal relativism, his willingness to point out the plain difference between good and evil is bracing, and recalls Ronald Reagan’s denunciation of the Evil Empire. The worry is that in tracing the individual right to be free to ordinary human compassion or fellow-feeling, and then confounding that right with an entitlement to live in a fully democratic regime, Bush promises or demands too much and risks a terrible deflation of the democratic idealism he has encouraged.

As he begins his second term, the president and his advisors must take a hard, second look at the Bush Doctrine. In many respects, it is the export version of compassionate conservatism. Even as the latter presumes that behind the economic problem of poverty is a moral problem, which faith-based initiatives may help to cure one soul at a time, so the Bush Doctrine discovers behind the dysfunctional economies and societies of the Middle East a moral problem, which “the transformational power of liberty” may cure, one democrat and one democracy at a time. “The power of liberty to transform lives and nations,” he admonishes, should not be underestimated. But it may be that the administration underestimates the difficulty of converting whole societies in the Middle East into functioning democracies. By raising expectations—by making democracy appear as an easier conversion and way of life than it really is—Bush risks not only the erosion of liberal and pro-democratic support within Iraq, but also at home a loss of public confidence in the whole war effort.

One wonders, for example, whether his version of compassionate democracy is sufficiently alert to the problem of security. In most American wars, the reconstruction did not begin until the fighting had ended, until the enemy was subjugated and peaceful order imposed on the country. Vietnam was an exception, but not a very helpful one. Bush criticizes previous administrations for making short-sighted bargains with Mideast kings and dictators, trading security for liberty in the region. Without liberty, he argues, there is no long-term security. Although he has a point, liberty itself presupposes a certain minimum security for life, liberty, and property that is woefully absent in much of Iraq. Earlier American statesmen, including the founders, would have been keenly aware of this requirement because their argument for republican government put great weight on the passion, and the right, of self-preservation. A government that could not protect the life and liberty of its citizens (better than they could left to themselves) was no government at all.

But in its first term the Bush Administration underestimated the problem of security because it overestimated the sentimental or compassionate grounds of democracy. Expecting the Iraqis quickly and happily to get in touch with their inner democrat, the administration was surprised that so many of them took a cautious, more self-interested view, preferring to reserve their allegiance for whichever side would more reliably protect them from getting killed. In general, the Bush team needs to recall that weak, contemptible, authoritarian regimes are not the only breeding grounds of trouble in the Middle East or elsewhere. Weak, contemptible democracies can be the source of great evil, too, as Weimar Germany attests.

Finally, the Bush Doctrine’s all-absorbing focus on bringing democracy to Iraq tends to crowd out concern for the kind of constructive, wide-ranging statesmanship that is needed there and in other Islamic nations. Unfortunately, the administration has never thought very seriously about constitutionalism, either at home or abroad, except for the narrow, though important, issue of elections. As the example of Turkey suggests, it may take many years, if ever, before Iraq is capable of a fully-functioning liberal democracy. In the meantime, the Iraqis need to adopt what arrangements they can to create strong executive powers; security forces able to protect their countrymen’s life, liberty, and property; a free, prosperous economy; local experience in managing local affairs; and impartial courts. Better regimes than the Taliban or Saddam Hussein are surely attainable, and are being attained. But these new governments are haunted by dire threats, including the danger of civil war and national disintegration.

Aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, President Bush promised, “we will stand with the new leaders of Iraq as they establish a government of, by, and for the Iraqi people.” But let us not expect that they will reform themselves—much less that we shall transform them—all at once up to the standards of the Gettysburg Address.

Charles R. Kesler is a senior fellow of The Claremont Institute and Editor of the Claremont Review of Books. This essay appears in the Winter 2004 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.

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