Parsing the President

President Bush was uncharacteristically slow to take credit, in his speech this week at the National Defense University, for what appear to be democratic-like changes in the Middle East. This might have been in part because if you’re just counting numbers, which to some extent is what democracy as such boils down to, the 500,000-strong pro-Syrian demonstration in Beirut that same day (which he didn’t mention, though in fairness the speech text was probably finalized the previous day) offered a hint that perhaps unleashing majorities in the Middle East could lead to outcomes the United States might not find pleasing.

It is also possible, of course, that the president has developed a sense of modesty about his regime-changing feats and ability to guide the forces of history. Or he may be aware that the developments of the last couple of weeks, pleasant as they may seem just now, could turn out badly. He might even be somewhat aware that Palestinian elections had more to do with the death of Yasser Arafat than with the invasion of Iraq, or that anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon had more to do with the assassination of former prime minister Hariri than with the election in Iraq.

Nonetheless, the speech had its share of typical Bush bravado – "we will keep the terrorists on the run until they have nowhere left to hide" – and yet another reference to a "generational commitment" to promoting democracy in the Middle East. It bears a certain amount of dissection.

Invoking Pearl Harbor

In the speech Mr. Bush equates 9/11 with Pearl Harbor – hardly original and to some extent justifiable – but does so in a way that justifies an open-ended commitment to – well, he is never quite clear, but it involves conflict that sends Americans overseas on a steady basis. "No matter how long it takes, no matter how difficult the task," he said, "we will fight the enemy and lift the shadow of fear and lead free nations to victory."

Note the Wilsonian utopianism there. What would it take to "lift the shadow of fear" worldwide? Will the United States be committing troops or other assets until nobody anywhere has any reason to be fearful? Perhaps it’s unfair to expect a presidential speech to be free of grandiose promises that no politician, and probably no human being, can possibly keep, but there it is. He or his speechwriters decided on that phrase. The country is committed to be involved in whatever overseas adventures the president find desirable until the shadow of fear is lifted.

And what does it mean to lead free nations to victory? The United States’ most significant allies in this global effort, besides Great Britain, whose prime minister is not exactly benefiting politically from his commitment, are Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and various Stans in Central Asia where we have been planting permanent military bases. Now I understand that you take your allies where you can find them, and any struggle against jihadist terrorism would have to involve countries geographically close to possible bases. But Saudi Arabia, despite recent municipal elections, is a family-run autocracy, and Pakistan, despite some superficial democratic trappings, is a military dictatorship. All of the Stans are at least autocracies that actively suppress civil society and dissent, and some are run by unreformed Marxists.

It would be nice if all these countries eventually became free countries, and eventually they might be. One phrase I rather liked from the president’s speech is that "freedom is the design of humanity and freedom is the direction of history." That may be more hope than reality – although if you’re thinking in terms of centuries, despite the setbacks during the widespread turn to totalitarianism during the 20th century, it’s possible to descry a significant advance of freedom – but it’s a nice hope.

The president mentioned Poland, Germany, and the Philippines as countries that have made significant contributions to the vaunted War on Terror. But not all of those we are leading are "free nations" yet by a long shot.

What Strategy?

The president claimed that, "Like an earlier generation [there’s that cheap invocation of history again], America’s pursuing a clear strategy with our allies to achieve victory." But he didn’t really lay out a coherent strategy, nor did he offer much evidence that the U.S. is really pursuing the strategy he says it is following.

"Our immediate strategy," he said, "is to eliminate terrorist threats abroad so we do not have to face them here at home." Interesting. For whatever reasons, the United States has not suffered a major terrorist attack since 9/11, but it is by no means clear that the reason is that the United States has been pursuing terrorists so relentlessly abroad. And it is not obvious at all that pursuing terrorists outside the country would prevent them from attacking within the United States.

Indeed, it is possible that reasonably discomfiting pursuits abroad might spur an attack on U.S. soil. Despite all those inconvenient and mostly useless impositions put on U.S. air travelers, as anybody who lives here knows and as officials have warned repeatedly, this is still a remarkably open country with a plethora of vulnerable potential targets. The ports are a long way from being locked down – which might be just as well, considering how disruptive of commerce a lockdown would be. If terrorists based abroad but with sympathizers and perhaps even cells in the United States were really feeling desperate, it wouldn’t be all that difficult to stage an attack on U.S. soil.

What Intelligence?

Which brings us to the question of whether the U.S. really is pursuing actual terrorists all that aggressively overseas. The appointment of John Negroponte to head the extra bureaucratic layer on top of the country’s 15 acknowledged intelligence agencies renewed on ongoing discussion of just how pathetic U.S. intelligence capabilities vis-à-vis jihadists are these days. CIA chief Porter Goss delivered plans to beef up capabilities recently, but even if they are perfectly successful, which is highly unlikely, it will be years before they bear fruit. As of now, the U.S. has hardly anybody who speaks Arabic or other relevant languages and has a prayer of infiltrating a jihadist group without getting killed, or can even move comfortably and unobtrusively in Arab cities or countryside. And prospects for getting many more are not exactly bright.

As a Walter Pincus Washington Post piece on Goss’ plans notes, "Training to be a clandestine officer can take a year, and for those who do not know Arabic or other needed languages, it could require two additional years." If an agent is planning to pose as a businessman rather than a member of a U.S. embassy staff (formerly the preferred cover except you just don’t pick up all that much about terrorist dirtbag plans at embassy cocktail parties), he or she is going to have to learn something about the business and spend a certain amount of time appearing to do it to avoid arousing suspicion in places that give strangers or newcomers fairly close scrutiny.

Clandestine work is never easy, and most of it is grinding, tedious, unglamorous stuff that brings few if any results. In the wake of the end of the Cold War – and other complications going back to the 1970s Church Committee – the U.S. almost ceased to do it. The failure to find WMD in Iraq spotlighted intelligence inadequacies – although, to be fair, the reason for failure might have more to do with trying to please political masters who sent strong signals about the kind of intelligence they wanted to see than with inadequacies in intelligence analysis at the agency level.

A report Bush is expected to receive this month from a special commission will say that American intelligence on Iran is inadequate to make anything resembling firm judgments about Iran’s possible weapons programs – even as the administration and the neocons are ratcheting up the heat on Iran, making almost unequivocal statements about Iranian intentions, and quite possibly preparing already for military action (most likely a bombing campaign).

If our intelligence is far from adequate, on what basis is it possible to say the U.S. is pursuing terrorist organizations to the point of substantially weakening them or making it more difficult for them to attack within the United States?

And we haven’t even discussed the possibility – well, the likelihood – that choosing to respond to a terrorist attack from a non-state and non-state-backed outfit by invading a country that had no operational connection to it has made it easier to recruit new terrorists or terrorist wannabes.

Changing Emphasis

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the president’s speech is the extent to which it embraces a near-revolutionary scheme of wholesale regime change (though not always through military means) that amounts to a repudiation of his father’s approach to international policy.

Here is Dubya:

"By now it should be clear that decades of excusing and accommodating tyranny in the pursuit of stability have only led to injustice and instability and tragedy.

"It should be clear that the advance of democracy leads to peace because governments that respect the rights of their people also respect the rights of their neighbors.

"It should be clear that the best antidote to radicalism and terror is the tolerance and hope kindled in free societies."

First, this is almost the opposite – at least in rhetoric – of the foreign policy of Bush 41. Poppa Bush and James Baker, his secretary of state, sought stability almost to a fault. Poppa went to Ukraine during the time the Soviet Union was breaking up and practically begged the country not to separate from Mother Russia lest stability be upset. Existing regimes and existing borders were viewed as almost sacrosanct, and any development that might have the potential to disturb them was viewed as terribly upsetting.

Bush 43 has repudiated that approach almost completely.

Second, the idea that democracies do not attack their neighbors or start wars is one of those nice-sounding platitudes that collapse under scrutiny. Perhaps the unprovoked U.S. invasion of Iraq is not relevant because Iraq was not a neighbor but halfway around the world. But that’s not the only example. As Ivan Eland shows in his recent book, The Empire Has No Clothes, not only have there been too few democracies to test this assertion, but there are examples of democracies fighting democracies.

The development of more genuinely free societies that adhere to solid principles of free and unfettered trade – which some democracies are but most democracies aren’t – might lead to fewer violent confrontations. But simply increasing the number of countries that have something resembling elections to choose their overseers is far from a magic formula for peace. If the Bushlet is an example – sorry, whiners, he was elected – it might even be a formula for never-ending war.

Encourage but Understand

I welcome any moves toward moderately more accountable government in the Middle East and elsewhere (and would love even more to see the notion of limited government more firmly implanted in as many places as possible). But it would be useful to understand the real wellsprings of these stirrings, almost all of which predate the war on Iraq and the 9/11 terror attacks. Understanding the histories behind democratic or anti-authoritarian impulses is hardly a guarantee of knowing the most effective ways to encourage them, but it couldn’t hurt.

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).