Come the Revisionists

Self-flattering, self-deluded–almost desperate

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Will the second Bush administration be less bellicose, more multilateral? That’s what some of the president’s critics are suggesting, after his much-publicized visit to Europe. Joseph S. Nye, author of Soft Power, thought he saw in Bush a new convert who had belatedly, but wisely, forsaken flawed concepts such as unilateralism and preemption and adopted instead the tenets of Nye’s own volume. “The most striking thing at this point in Bush’s second term,” Nye recently intoned, “is his belated discovery of the importance of diplomacy and soft power.”

Clinton NSC veteran Nancy Soderberg recently expressed worry that Bush’s policies — often the opposite of those of the Clinton administration and thus antithetical also to the precepts of Soderberg’s just-released but ill-timed The Superpower Myth — well, might just work. “It’s scary for Democrats,” she stammered on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, “I have to say. . . . Well, there’s still Iran and North Korea, don’t forget. There’s still hope for the rest of us. . . . There’s always hope that this might not work.” But later, when asked by Bill O’Reilly to explain her curious remarks, she echoed this strange new theme that Bush was finally getting it right: “I think there’s a second-term conversion going on with the Bush administration. I’d like to think it’s because they read my book. I think it has more to do with the fact that reality has seeped in. They’re starting to talk well of the French.”

At first glance, this is all counterintuitive. Almost immediately after the inauguration, President Bush made a number of appointments that reflected confidence in the course of his prior four years. John Bolton, the hawk on North Korea, was named ambassador to the U.N. This was not a gesture calculated to show that a contrite United States was now seeking accommodation with the U.N. hierarchy; Bolton is expected, rather, to deploy his tough talk and iron spine to shake up a corrupt institution reeling from scandals. Nor was Paul Wolfowitz relegated to the World Bank as punishment for his neo-Wilsonian stance in the Middle East: He was elevated to the institution’s presidency precisely to inject that same sort of democratic idealism into determining the extension or withdrawal of international loans.

Similarly, Condoleezza Rice is no ambivalent Colin Powell type; she is a powerful spokesman for the president’s own views that place democracy and idealism in the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. She has already expressed disagreement with the Europeans’ desire to sell arms to Communist China; canceled a meeting with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, to remind him to release dissidents and hold multiparty elections; skipped a visit to Canada, on news that the government there had backed out of the U.S.-led missile-defense project; and recalled the U.S. ambassador from Damascus, in displeasure at Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. The U.N., EU, NATO, and the Democratic leadership played little role in the flurry of her first few weeks in her new post.

Indeed, rather than following the multilateral approach called for by John Kerry in the recent campaign, Secretary Rice seemed to be seeking strong new bilateral ties with India, Taiwan, and Japan. They all appreciate American idealism and power, and the willingness of the U.S. to open its economy, and to warn a newly aggressive China to tread carefully around the region’s democracies.

Given this reality, what is behind the new revisionist notion that the second, softer Bush administration is a corrective to the harder first? The most obvious explanation is simply the angst of those out of power. Liberals and Democrats now write “should have done it my way” books in lieu of wielding real influence. They witness the world now operating according to principles that leave them privately aghast. What do they make of the president’s controversial isolation of Arafat — now that it has, indirectly, led to immediate West Bank elections upon Arafat’s death? What explains the conversion of Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who cut his teeth damning the U.S. but now confesses, “It’s strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world”? After the democratic agitation sweeping the Middle East, following the successful elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, even the most ardent Bush-haters might admit that the static world of Oslo, U.N. embargos, and no-fly zones had more in it of appeasement than of principle. The now-famous New York Times editorial of March 1 pointed out that “the Bush administration is entitled to claim a healthy share of the credit for many of these advances.”

American idealism, backed with force and conviction — not soft power, multilateralism, Europeans, or the U.N. — ended the rule of the Taliban, and of Saddam Hussein. The often-lonely vision of George W. Bush ushered in elected governments in their places, and inspired the disenfranchised elsewhere to begin agitating for change. Those in Lebanon know that it was an American president, not Kofi Annan or Gerhard Schroeder, who both shares their aspirations and is willing to stand up to their oppressors.

Among the critics of the first George W. Bush administration — and especially among the architects of the feeble U.S. response to terrorism in the 1990s — the present reality must be either denied or spun. The former is impossible when Arab radicals themselves credit Bush with being a catalyst for reform. That leaves the latter alternative of spin as the only recourse: Bush erred by going alone and is now changing to our point of view and thus basking in the world’s appreciation.

The second reason we are witnessing these false claims of a new direction in foreign policy is simply the changing tides of war, and the facts on the ground in the Middle East. The turn to offense after 9/11, the removal of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, coupled with reconstruction and preparation for the establishment of democracy, occupied almost all of the attention of the Bush-administration years between 9/11 and the second inauguration.

But now, both tyrannies are gone. Counter-democratic forces are waning, and the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq are gaining strength. While hyper-critics talked of “taking our eye off bin Laden,” and listened to the pessimism of Richard Clarke, Michael (“Anonymous”) Scheuer, or Joe Wilson, the U.S. military, unheralded, was systematically routing al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, retaking Fallujah, and killing thousands of insurgents in Iraq. Those unsung American heroes empowered U.S. diplomats with new leverage against enemies (such as Syria and Iran) and erstwhile friends (such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt). If insurrectionists in Iraq once emboldened reproachful Europeans, successful voting there has now embarrassed them.

So there have been ripples from such American resolve that remind us that force need not be perpetually applied, once the credibility of one’s willingness to resort to it has been unambiguously reestablished. In short, George W. Bush can play good cop/bad cop with the Europeans in Iran, invite multilateral parties to adjudicate the crisis in North Korea, and work with France in Lebanon, because no one doubts that the alternative could well be worse: American unilateral action to disarm rogue nuclear states or stop Syria’s promotion of terrorist enclaves in neighboring countries.

That very lack of credibility was the tragedy of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy of warmed-over Carterism, under which we waited nearly a decade to remove Milosevic, withdrew in defeat from Somalia, gave up a chance to have bin Laden extradited — and treated terrorism as essentially a criminal-justice matter, with military actions amounting to a few cruise missiles and stern-sounding press conferences. Perhaps Europeans, Arab dictators, Yasser Arafat, and Kofi Annan all liked Bill Clinton far more than they do George W. Bush — but whether they respected, feared, or trusted him more is another matter altogether.

We went through a similar cycle of easily lost and then laboriously restored deterrence with the successive administrations of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan — when after the Communist expansion in Afghanistan and Central America, genocide in Cambodia, and hostage-taking in Iran, the U.S., under a demonized but intrepid president, recovered to unravel the Soviet Union.

This characteristic liberal laxity was chided by Leslie Gelb, no fan of George W. Bush, in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. Gelb’s lecture to liberals — who, he wrote, “portray the rest of the world as just a bunch of misunderstood bunny-rabbits” — began with, “The Democrats need a Dick Cheney, especially on foreign policy.” Gelb remonstrated that “Cheney sees the dark side of the world, a reality that largely eludes Democrats but not most Americans. He understands power and knows how to wield it, as opposed to the soft-power prose of intellectual Democrats.”

The “soft power” advisers to John Kerry in the last election and the craftsmen of Democratic foreign policy now play a similar role to the administration that Europe enjoys with the U.S. itself. Like the Europeans, the soft-power advocates can talk all they want about nice-guy diplomacy and the need for multilateral institutions, but they will have to realize that their approach enjoys such validity as it does only because the Bush administration has done the hard part: braving the melee when corpses piled up and thugs were on the rampage.

Sadly, too many leftists still don’t have a clue what brought this all about. Consequently, they are peddling this bizarre notion that what led us into the mess culminating in 9/11 is what will now save us. One would think that they had been comatose the last three years, if they had not been so vocal in opposing what actually worked.

Anybody can appear kinder and gentler when the bad guys have been taken out and high noon has passed. Only then can the cowering townsfolk pour back onto Main Street to slap the sheriff on the back, applauding that his smoking gun is now safely and properly holstered — and all those nasty outlaw corpses are conveniently out of sight at the undertaker’s.

Brace yourself: They are all coming out right now.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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