What Chance for Reality?

One doubts that there were enough memorable phrases or stirring lines to make President Bush’s second inaugural address one of those that will be remembered for years. Nonetheless, it was a remarkably frank speech that offered citizens a reasonably honest look at how the president views his role over the next four years. That it focused almost entirely on freedom in the world at large rather than on anything on the domestic agenda – one presumes there will be more in the State of the Union speech next month – is good news and bad news.

"There is only one force in history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom," the president said. That is – with certain reservations, such as that the spread of freedom does not guarantee that hatred and resentment will disappear – is not only largely true, it is modestly inspiring. To declare further that "the best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world," is also a worthy sentiment.

Based on words alone, there is much in the president’s speech that almost any lover of liberty should be able to take to heart. It speaks well for this country, and for the hopes for freedom instilled in it from the beginning by founders who, whatever their faults, had an uncommon wisdom about the importance and beneficence of liberty in human affairs, that our leaders feel they have to make reference to liberty, to embrace freedom (at least rhetorically) when they call us to follow them.

The problem is that Mr. Bush still seems to believe that it is possible to expand freedom through force of arms – to impose freedom (or to be fair, perhaps, to create the conditions in which liberty has a chance to flourish) – by invading a country, displacing its tyrant, and putting better people in his place, theoretically at least with the kinds of institutions and political infrastructure that make freedom possible or even likely. To be sure, he included the caveat that "this is not primarily the task of arms," but based on the record during the first term, this administration knows little else but arms in its quest to establish something that can be described as democracy or freedom.

Freedom That Might Last

The idea that freedom with a chance to last arises most often from forces within a country, that when it is based on indigenous aspirations, experiences, and desires it is likely to be sturdier than when it is imposed from outside, was almost absent from the speech, and from a broad spectrum of American thinking.

To be sure, there was an aside that recognized cultural differences, noting that "when the soul of a nation [I know it’s metaphorical, but really, can a nation have a soul?] finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own." (Or was that a prelude to calling a Shi’ite-dominated government that yearns to impose sharia an exemplar off the kind of freedom and democracy this administration endorses?) But the notion that people with real confidence in the universality of the aspiration for freedom can have the patience to permit conditions to arise that make freedom another country’s own, rather than a transplant, didn’t intrude much.

Also absent was the concern over means and ends that should be at the forefront for genuine lovers of liberty. The standard way of dealing with the question is to agonize (with varying degrees of sincerity) over the question of whether the means, which might in some cases be a bit ugly, can justify the ends, which are presumed to be glorious. But the stubborn fact is that most of the time, the means determine the ends. If you use violent and coercive means, the end result is going to be violence and coercion. That’s the fallacy of using invasions, threats, and the force of arms to spread freedom around the world.

Not to deny that some countries might on balance be better off after an invasion – shucks, Iraq might be better off when we view it 20 years or so from now – but an invasion that leaves rubble in its wake does not bring about freedom or prosperity. At the outset it brings rubble. Freedom might eventually develop, but whatever chance it has to flourish is a result of cleaning up the mess left by the invasion and moving on. Killing people and breaking things is simply not the most efficacious way to create freedom, prosperity and peace.

Signs of Hope?

One can adduce certain hopeful signs from the president’s choice of freedom as a goal. Even if he doesn’t understand the implications properly, his rhetorical use of the term invites others to explore more deeply the conditions that bring about freedom, to renew their devotion to liberty, to think more reflectively about how it happens, and to find better ways to promote its growth. There are dangers in any crusading spirit, but urging people to devote themselves to freedom is not all bad. It wouldn’t be bad for the United States to devote itself to genuinely efficacious ways to promote freedom – understanding better than the president that you don’t get there through the use of force, but that leading by example, while it may take longer, establishes a more secure foundation.

Despite the president’s failure to understand this – indeed, his touching faith that he can impose freedom with bombs and boots on the ground – all might not be lost. There are tantalizing hints that a second Bush term will see an outbreak of something resembling a new realism in foreign policy. But the signs are difficult enough to read that efforts at prediction could resemble the erudite and informed guesswork that characterized the profession of Kremlinologist back in the day.

If we’re more fortunate than perhaps we have reason to believe we will be, perhaps reality might kick in before the next crusade is launched.

Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s choice for secretary of state, had a career and an academic life before the latest rise of the neoconservative cabal that has dominated American foreign policy since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She is said to be the foreign policy adviser George W. Bush trusts the most. Her choice as deputy, former U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, viewed as a realist in the Brent Scowcroft-Jim Baker mold, over John Bolton, noted for preferring an aggressive stance toward North Korea, disappointed many neoconservatives.

Hawks Still in Saddles

However, neoconservatives still dominate the Pentagon (despite the fact that a few neocons, notably Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, have attacked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) and Vice President Cheney’s staff, which is likely to be at least as influential in a second Bush term as it was in the first. And there was that story this week by New Yorker writer Seymour Hersh, to the effect that the U.S. has already conducted secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran with the goal of identifying military and/or potentially nuclear targets for possible bombing strikes.

If Seymour Hersh’s sources are correct – he hasn’t always been right over the years, but he has lots of sources and has gotten stories others missed – the intelligence probes into Iran were done by the Pentagon rather than the CIA. "That suggests that they’re more a preparation for action than the normal cover-all-contingencies intelligence you would hope the CIA can still conduct," Cato Institute vice president for defense and foreign policy studies Ted Carpenter told me this week.

On the other-other hand, the president has an ambitious domestic agenda highlighted by continuing to talk about reshaping Social Security in the direction of individual investment accounts. The adventure in Iraq has not gone especially well, and despite continued optimism in public, at some level even the president may be aware of this. Our military forces are stretched thin; morale in the National Guard and reserves is suffering. A majority of Americans now believe the invasion of Iraq was not worth the cost.

Enter Realism?

Is a more modest and realistic foreign policy possible in the president’s second term? Here are a few developments I’d like to see.

It’s unlikely that the election in Iraq will be followed closely by an announcement of a date certain for withdrawal of American troops. It’s even more unlikely that a withdrawal will be accompanied by a formal apology from President Bush for the miscalculations that led to the unnecessary invasion and subsequent damage to Iraq’s infrastructure, although some commentators view that as a virtual necessity for a reasonably positive outcome in the near future.

But it is possible that without acknowledging mistakes, the U.S. could declare a victory for the inevitable triumph of democracy in Iraq and pull out, trumpeting the fact that this proves we never had designs on Iraq’s oil or a desire to rule Muslim-dominated lands. That could take a certain amount of zest from the relentless recruitment by al-Qaeda and other jihadists.

The Iraqi incursion has highlighted the fact that the best-trained and most technologically sophisticated military in the world – and probably in history – can’t do every task some civilian in the Pentagon or intellectual in a think tank might dream up. It has also made it clear that if the administration has Iran – a much larger, more geographically difficult country to invade than Iraq, with arguably a better military – in its sights, it will need a larger military.

You could get more "boots on the ground" with a draft or by paying the volunteer military considerably more. But you might be able to bolster the number of troops available for new missions – or for Iraq – by reducing the number of troops or closing bases in Korea, Okinawa, and Germany.

A New Posture in the World

Could that lead to rethinking just how necessary it is to have garrisons all over the world, and eventually to a foreign policy that evolves beyond empire to something like leading by example and influencing through trade and culture rather than military might? It might not happen through a clean and openly acknowledged break with the recent past of preventive and preemptive military action, but as the reality of what such a policy costs sets in, and more Americans become disillusioned with the results, things could change over time.

Government, and especially government informed by ideology, can be viewed as in part a persistent effort to repeal reality. But reality has a way of biting back.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).