Bush is a president remade by war

Posted in Broader Middle East , Iraq , United States , Asia | 15-Dec-03 | Author: Thomas Friedman| Source: International Herald Tribune

Anyone who has listened to President George W. Bush's recent speeches about the need to promote democracy in the Arab-Muslim world can't but walk away both impressed and dubious - impressed because promoting democracy in the Arab world is something no president before has advocated with Bush's vigor, and dubious because this sort of nation-building is precisely what Bush spurned throughout his campaign. Where did Bush's passion for making the Arab world safe for democracy come from?

Though the president mentioned this theme before the war, it was not something he stressed with the public, Congress or the United Nations in justifying an Iraq invasion. Rather, he relied primarily on the urgent need to pre-emptively strip Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.

A cynic might say that Bush was always interested only in stripping Iraq of its WMD. But with no WMD having been unearthed thus far in Iraq, and with the costs of the war in lives and dollars soaring, the president felt he needed a new rationale. And so he focused on the democratization argument.

But there is another explanation, one that is not incompatible with the first but is less overtly cynical. It is a story about war and events and how they can transform a president.

"It often happens," argues Michael Sandel, the Harvard political theorist, "that presidents, under the pressure of events, especially during war, find themselves needing to articulate new and more persuasive rationales for their policies - especially when great sacrifices are involved. This happened to Lincoln during the Civil War. At the outset, the purpose of the Civil War for Lincoln was to oppose secession and preserve the Union. It was really only after the battle at Gettysburg that Lincoln articulated a larger purpose for the Civil War - namely freedom and the elimination of slavery."

In Lincoln's case the rationale for the war shifted, not because he couldn't find any WMD in Dixie, but rather, argues Sandel, "because of the enormity of the sacrifice that the war was requiring. It no longer made moral sense that this great sacrifice could just be about keeping these states together, could just be about a political structure. It had to be about a bigger purpose and that was freedom and equality."

Woodrow Wilson went through a similar transformation, notes Sandel. He campaigned for re-election in 1916 boasting of having kept the country out of Europe's messy war. But by April 2, 1917, Wilson was standing before a joint session of Congress, seeking a declaration of war against Germany and insisting that the world "must be made safe for democracy."

The irony, notes Sandel, is that Bush's decision to emphasize the democracy rationale puts him in the company of Wilson, the president who made liberal internationalism the core of his foreign policy.

"Indeed," he adds, "President Bush, who campaigned for the presidency as an ardent realist, scorning nation-building and idealism in foreign policy, is now quoting President Wilson and speaking about the need to make the Middle East safe for democracy. It shows how the burden of the office and the power of events can transform presidents."

Personally, I'm partial to Bush's new emphasis on the freedom and democracy argument, which for me was the only compelling rationale for the Iraq war.

The question is how deeply Bush has internalized this democracy agenda, which is going to be a long, costly enterprise, and to what extent he can persuade Americans to stick with it.

The fact is, Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address himself. Bush's democracy speeches were written for him. Only the future will tell us whether his attachment to this issue is the product of epiphany or expediency - or both.

In my Nov. 30 column, I wrote about standing on a sidewalk in London and watching with dismay the protest parade go by - focused entirely on Tony Blair and George W. Bush, with no signs or chants mentioning the atrocities perpetrated by Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein - or even the murderous bombing in Istanbul that day. Readers wrote that at the public rally following the march, some speakers did decry the events in Istanbul. I'm glad to hear it.