The McGill Report

George W. Bush the Foreign Policy Progressive

Rochester, MN -- Richard Nixon opened China to the West.

Ronald Reagan stared down the Soviet Union and ended the cold war.

Will George W. Bush bring democracy to the Middle East?

Unlikely as that might sound to some, such as habitual Bush-doubting liberals like me, the evidence is building that this could happen and that the president deserves every liberal's full support.

The reason is not only that the stakes are too high, both for the Iraqi people and for U.S. credibility around the world, not to offer that support. And it's not only that despite the continuing tragic losses from conflict in Iraq, the evidence is plentiful that the country is growing freer every day.

It's that President Bush, like many other conservative Republican presidents before him, has while in office undergone in foreign policy an unmistakable transformation into a É liberal.

His remarkable foreign policy speech of Nov. 6 at the National Endowment for Democracy marked the turning point in his transformation.

Exercise of Liberty

"Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty?" the President said in the speech. "Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom and never even have a choice in the matter?

Woodrow Wilson, the progressive liberal Democratic U.S. president who led us into World War I to "make the world safe for democracy," could not have said it better.

President Bush continued:

"America has put our power at the service of principle. We believe that liberty is the direction of history. We believe that human fulfillment and excellence come in the responsible exercise of liberty. And we believe that freedom, the freedom we prize, is not for us alone. It is the right and the capacity of all mankind."

The speech read like a core text of Wilsonian internationalism in the way it prescribed peacemaking via the enforcement of equal parts disarmament, free trade and democracy.

"Some of the finest eloquence money can buy," sneered Michael Kinsley, the liberal columnist. Like many other critics, Kinsley cited Bush's opposition to nation-building when he was running for president and his declaration in one debate that "the United States must be humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course."

Empty Rhetoric

Ahem, Mike and other reflexive Bush-haters. An important something called 9/11 happened about a year after Bush became president. Maybe that had something to do with his about-face on foreign policy?

To be honest, I do remain skeptical in some ways. I find the president's general personal demeanor to be insincere. And I find it somewhat difficult to reconcile the soaring idealism of his Nov. 6 speech with the disingenuous rhetoric of his domestic policy utterances.

For example, by selling tax cuts for the super-rich as if they were manna for the masses (i.e., the dividend tax and the inheritance tax), the president seems to place the strivings of working and middle-class Americans in even lower esteem than he does the strivings of Iraqis.

The president apparently has never met a Big Business that he didn't like, and the administration's program to privatize Medicare under the cover of "reform" I find objectionable on liberal grounds.

The president's newfound liberalism on the matters of Iraq, Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries, so eloquently spelled out in the Nov. 6 speech, also isn't evenly spread to other foreign policy spheres.

High Ideals

Earlier this month, for example, the Bush administration allowed protectionist tariffs of up to 30 percent to be put on imported steel. America's frequent belligerent dealings with the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, the Kyoto Protocol on Global Warming, and many other international agencies and treaties, are also all highly illiberal.

And yet, I overlook, and I forgive.

Democracy in America and Europe and Japan wasn't built in a day or a decade. And it won't be in Iraq, either. Yes, there are reasons to be skeptical of the president's commitment to liberal international views.

But give the president credit. He stood up, and he said the words. They were clear, they were forceful, and they pointed us all toward high ideals.

In a word, the speech was inspiring. It reminded us that America is an experiment in the progress of mankind. That experiment continues.

And having said the words we can now hold him -- and us -- to them.

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report