Republicans Must Emphasize Their Democratic Ideals

John Zvesper

April 1, 2004

Most Europeans and many European governments have always said that invading Iraq was not a good way to prevent terrorist attacks (with or without massively destructive weapons). These European critics are now being joined in a more concerted fashion by many Americans. If Republicans fail to defend their foreign policy, by emphasizing its democratic ideals, they could lose the White House.

The administration should be able to persuade the American electorate, as well as attentive people elsewhere in the world, that going to war in Iraq was not a mistake, but only if they effectively explain the ambitious democratic aspirations of their foreign policy. Fortunately, Bush has already given what could well be the best campaign speeches of 2004: at West Point in June 2002, and in Washington (at the National Endowment for Democracy anniversary) and London (Whitehall) in November 2003.

To make their case well, the Bush administration will have to speak clearly and seriously. They will have to refute (and not just to undermine) the kinds of arguments so provocatively made by Richard Clarke (and less aggressively by John Kerry), that their concerns about Iraq—both before and after September 2001—have distracted them from combating threats by terrorist networks.

In an interview on CNN a few days ago (on March 28th), Clarke asserted that invading Iraq (presumably even if it had been done with the blessing of France, Germany, and one more United Nations resolution) destroyed a “window of opportunity” that the attacks of September 2001 had opened—the opportunity to change opinion in the Islamic world, by moving it “away from the radical agenda, because a lot of people in the Islamic world were horrified by what happened on 9/11.” The way to defeat terrorism, according to Clarke, is not just by “arresting and killing terrorists, because you can never catch them all.” What we must also do is win “the hearts and minds of the Islamic world.” But now, “having invaded a country that was not threatening us in any way, 90 percent of the population in most of the Arab and Islamic countries hates the United States. So we now have a much higher hurdle to mount to win the war on terrorism.”

There are many doubtful assumptions in Clarke’s assertion; for example, would any terrorists have been more impressed by our further dalliance with Saddam Hussein than by the use of military force to disarm him? But on one point Clarke is correct: the Bush approach entails much more ambitious goals—much “higher hurdles”—than Clarke’s approach countenanced. These goals relate to Islamic hearts and minds—but also to political constitutions in Islamic Arab countries. If the Bush administration has the courage to emphasize this fact, then it has a good chance of persuading the American public—and, who knows, maybe even the odd French citizen—that Bush’s policy deserves to be supported.

Interviewed during the same broadcast as Clarke, Richard Perle (former Assistant Secretary of Defense, and a Bush supporter) has been praised for sharply defining the substantive issue: “I think [Clarke] simply has it wrong on… the relationship between Iraq and the war on terror. I think it’s part and parcel of the war on terror; he thinks it isn’t. And that’s the issue that we ought to be debating, not who was irresponsible, who was lax.” Perle’s statement elevates the debate, but not enough.

Even granting that there was good reason (as indeed there was) for fearing that the Iraqi regime might arm terrorists with very lethal weapons, or use them aggressively itself (again), this could have been dealt with by invading and disarming Iraq, and then going home, even if this meant leaving behind a destructive civil war. But well before the invasion of Iraq, Bush articulated more ambitious goals for American foreign policy, and it is these that Bush supporters should recall and dwell on. For example, at West Point, Bush spoke of the “non-negotiable demands of human dignity,” based on the fact that “moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place.” He concluded that “America has a greater objective than controlling threats and containing resentment. We will work for a just and peaceful world beyond the war on terror.” Moreover, he noted that this is a common human ideal: “When it comes to the common rights and needs of men and women, there is no clash of civilizations. The requirements of freedom apply fully to Africa and Latin America and the entire Islamic world. The peoples of the Islamic nations want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as people in every nation.”

This ambitious ideal has its moderate and prudent aspects. Bush has always been careful to specify that America has its own interests in mind in pursuing the idealistic policy of encouraging the spread of liberal democracy, because liberal democratic countries do not threaten the peace, and do contribute to each other’s prosperity. He has also been careful to say that democratic development can take a long time, and a variety of forms. Moreover, he has insisted that every country must be responsible for its own freedom: at Whitehall he cautioned that, while America, through diplomacy, information and education, can encourage other governments and peoples to progress towards “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,” it “cannot impose this vision.” What America, more than any other country, can do is to “defend the peace” that makes such progress possible.

But what America is attempting to do in Iraq is much more ambitious than world peace-keeping (though that in itself is pretty ambitious, even given American military strength). At Whitehall, Bush pledged that “We will help the Iraqi people establish a peaceful and democratic country in the heart of the Middle East.” Bush’s democratic ambition extends from Iraq to this entire region, which has for so long seemed so resistant to political moderation and toleration.

Many American and European critics of Bush’s foreign policy have urged that America focus less simply on killing or capturing terrorists (although they admit that that has its place), and focus more on the strategy of making peace between Israel and its enemies, to get at the root cause of much terrorism. Romano Prodi, the European Commission president, recently (in a Fox News interview on March 21st) repeated this very common European view, that both of these strategies have to be part of the fight against terrorism.

Well, the good news for Europe is that President Bush agrees—although it’s not clear that he and President Prodi would agree on what this strategy would justly demand from Palestinian Arabs and the countries that are hostile to Israel’s very existence. The point is that Bush clearly sees the need to grasp this nettle, and sees the Coalition efforts in Iraq as an important step in that direction. Encouraging liberal democracy among Islamic Arabs is a new, more ambitious but also more promising kind of “Middle East peace process.” Arab “modernization” bereft of modern democratic politics has ignited and fuelled the kind of terrorism that launched the September 2001 attacks.

Bush has recognized and stated that encouraging the democratization of the Islamic Arab countries is a revolutionary approach to the Middle East. In this region, the United States has been as guilty as others in supporting undemocratic regimes, but with the end of the cold war, pacts with devils have become less necessary. It may be too soon to expect many Europeans to adjust to this revolution, but the American electorate is perfectly capable of understanding, supporting, and continuing it.

John Zvesper is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. He is an American author residing in Europe.