Commentary Magazine

The Bush Manifesto

The “National Security Strategy of the United States” is a document that usually passes unnoticed. Commenting on the most ambitious one produced during the eight years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, William Safire quipped that it “has been kept secret by the fiendishly clever device of making it public.” In truth, these reports, which are supposed to be issued annually, and in the name of the President, are always made public and almost always ignored. Some of them have been written in the third person, suggesting that not even the document’s putative author has read it.

It was thus a dramatic change when, this fall, George W. Bush’s first strategy statement provoked front-page headlines and incited a rash of greatly alarmed reactions at home and abroad. “Pugnacious,” “arrogant,” “sure to make the rest of the world uneasy,” lamented the New York Times. “A call for . . . imperialism,” protested Senator Edward Kennedy. “An implicit . . . denunciation of the modern state order,” warned the columnist William Pfaff in the International Herald Tribune, who also likened the supposed revolutionary destructiveness of Bush’s work to the Communist Manifesto.

What made this document so different from its predecessors was not only its content but its context. Earlier annual reports, the mandate for which had been enacted in 1986 just as the cold war was winding down, were usually empty exercises because, in the absence of a crystallized threat, “strategic planning” was itself hopelessly vague. But now, in the wake of the attacks of September 11, the President had proclaimed the nation to be at war with terrorism, and this document represented the fullest statement yet of his approach to that war.

In this respect if in few others, the new strategy could be said to bear some resemblance to America’s last grand strategy, “containment,” which likewise developed more in practice than in abstraction. In the late 1940’s, as Communists seized Poland and Czechoslovakia and grasped for Greece and Turkey, the United States came to realize that it faced a profound underlying danger. That danger was Soviet expansionism, and “containment” was our response to it. Similarly, George W. Bush concluded that the events of September 11 were but one terrible instance of a larger peril, and what he was now offering was a plan, however rough, for confronting it in its full dimension.

Indeed, it was Bush’s insistence on this broad approach that aroused most of the controversy. Few Americans or Europeans may have doubted the need to combat terrorism or the organization called al Qaeda, and most proved willing to countenance our attack on al Qaeda’s Taliban sponsors. But in speeches over the intervening months, Bush’s invocation of an “axis of evil,” his espousal of “regime change” in Iraq, his warning that each nation must choose which side it was on in the war against terror—all this had struck some Americans and most Europeans as too sweeping or too aggressive. Now, this ambitious plan for confronting a peril that according to Bush lay “at the crossroads of radicalism and technology” seemed to confirm their worst fears.



The strategy as presented articulates three goals: to “defend the peace by fighting terrorists and tyrants, . . . preserve the peace by building good relations among the great powers, . . . [and] extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent.”

Explaining the first goal—why terrorists must be fought, and can no longer be viewed by us as a marginal phenomenon—the document asserts that whereas “enemies in the past needed great armies and great industrial capabilities to endanger America,” today “shadowy networks of individuals can bring great chaos and suffering to our shores for less than it costs to purchase a single tank.” While homeland defense is necessary, “our best defense is a good offense.” This is the reason America is waging “war against terrorists of global reach.”

Since the terrorists’ “shadowy networks” batten on support from governments, the document also repeats more than once Bush’s earlier insistence that “we make no distinction between terrorists and those who knowingly harbor or provide aid to them.” Among the now familiar checklist of tools that can be used against terrorism, including “law enforcement, intelligence, and vigorous efforts to cut off terrorist financing,” it lays stress on two: “wag[ing] a war of ideas” and military force. The latter embraces, pointedly, the “exercise [of] our right of self-defense by acting preemptively against . . . terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country.” Ideally such action will be taken in concert with partners, but “we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary.”

Dire though the terrorist threat is, it does not rise to the level of the threat once posed by the Soviet Union. The President’s second stated goal—preserving the peace—aims at averting a recurrence of precisely that kind of danger. “Today,” the report asserts, “the international community has the best chance since the rise of the nation-state in the 17th century to build a world where great powers compete in peace instead of continually prepare for war.” Of course, such ideals have often been voiced before, ordinarily as a vision of the distant day when lions will lie down with lambs. Bush, however, treats this as a practical goal, thereby giving the first glimpse of the unlikely radicalism of his whole approach.

To fulfill this vision, Bush proposes to work toward ever more friendly relations with Russia and China. As against those who believe that China is likely to emerge as a key American rival, the document states that “We welcome the emergence of a strong, peaceful, and prosperous China.” At the same time, it affirms the need for China to democratize, and proclaims “our commitment to the self-defense of Taiwan.”

But the goal of preserving a world without great-power conflict also entails a harder edge: namely, maintaining America’s military supremacy. Bush’s statement vows that “our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.”

In expounding the third goal of Bush’s strategy—extending the peace—the statement draws from the experience of the 20th century the lesson that there is only “a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.” Accordingly, Bush promises to “make freedom and the development of democratic institutions key themes in our bilateral relations” and to “speak out honestly about violations of the non-negotiable demands of human dignity.” Toward that end he proposes a 50-percent increase in U.S. “core development assistance”—that is, foreign aid—directed to “countries whose governments rule justly, invest in their people, and encourage economic freedom.”

The document also contains the usual potpourri of pledges: to modernize our military, promote free trade, and defuse regional conflicts. But the essence of the strategy lies in the three goals I have described, and it is these that have been the focus of controversy. Or rather the first two have drawn attack, while the third, which constitutes the most important and most ambitious component of the strategy, has been relatively ignored.



The most intense controversy has surrounded the issue of preemptive war. In the statement itself, Bush’s defense of the legitimacy of preemption serves to buttress the case for going to war specifically to oust Saddam Hussein. But as former Vice President Al Gore pointed out in a much publicized rejoinder to the document, “the existing [UN] resolutions from 1991 are sufficient from a legal standpoint” to justify resuming hostilities with Iraq. Why, then, did Bush grasp this hot potato?

Probably the answer is that he wanted to lay out something more than a narrow legal argument for going to war. He wanted an argument that appealed, as he put it, to “common sense.” It was not only Saddam Hussein’s violation of UN Security Council resolutions that justified the risks and costs of war; it was the terrifying danger he would pose if armed with nuclear weapons. In addition, the President may have wanted to underline the earnestness of his own repeated assertions that we are not after any one state or group but rather have in our sights the entire global network of terrorists and their sponsors.

Three main objections have been raised to Bush’s doctrine of preemption in this larger context. The first is that it is open-ended. If the United States claims the right to attack Iraq today, whom will it turn on tomorrow? Bush’s strategy, reported Time, “argues that the strongest nation in the world has the right to preemptively attack anyone who seeks to harm its people or interests.”

The second objection, less jaundiced in its view of American aims, concentrates not so much on the temptation to inaugurate wars hither and yon as on the precedent we may be establishing for others—a precedent only too open to exploitation by less scrupulous states. Thus, a Brookings Institution analysis raised the troubling prospect that “other countries will embrace the preemption argument as a cover for settling their own national-security scores.”

The third objection is that the policy of preemption will shred the fabric of international law. “What this doctrine does,” said Gore, “is to destroy the goal of a world in which states consider themselves subject to law.”

All three objections are debatable, if not downright specious. The first simply misrepresents the statement. Contrary to Time, and contrary to Gore’s plaint that Bush has arrogated to himself the “right to preemptively attack whomsoever he may deem represents a potential future threat,” the document makes plain that the policy of preemption is aimed at terrorists and “rogue states” alone. The latter term, coined in the Clinton administration, is here given precise definition perhaps for the first time.

Rogue states, says the strategy paper, have a number of identifiable characteristics. They

brutalize their own people and squander their national resources for the personal gain of the rulers; display no regard for international law, threaten their neighbors, and callously violate international treaties to which they are party; are determined to acquire weapons of mass destruction, along with other advanced military technology, to be used as threats or offensively to achieve the[ir] aggressive designs; sponsor terrorism around the globe; and reject basic human values and hate the United States and everything for which it stands.

This is a definition that would readily apply to the three members of Bush’s “axis of evil,” and perhaps to Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya—but to few, if any, others. One might challenge aspects of the enumerated criteria, but the claim that Bush has sought an unlimited writ for preemptive action is nonsense.

More reasonable is the fear that others might borrow the doctrine of preemption for their own, less savory purposes. Some states, no doubt, will try to do precisely that. But (to anticipate somewhat the third objection) there is less cause for alarm here than meets the eye, for the fear rests on the assumption that international law acts as a substantial barrier to misbehavior by states. In truth, international law is not self-enforcing, and serves as a barrier only insofar as states, meaning usually the United States, are willing to enforce it. In practice, miscreant nations routinely cloak their actions in spurious claims of self-defense or of other rights enshrined in law. It is not the cleverness of their arguments but rather the willingness of others to bear the burdens of counteracting them that determines what they will get away with.



To say, however, that international law is not self-enforcing and that its enforcement depends largely on the United States is not to say that international law is of no value to the United States. On the contrary, if all nations lived up to the law, the achievement of America’s major international objectives—peace, human rights, fair commerce—would be assured. Since many do not live up to it, our success depends on our own power. But the law affords us a recognized and objective standard for exercising that power. Granted, it may present a constraint on our freedom of action, but that is a price worth paying for the legitimacy it confers on the most important objectives of our policy.

For this reason, the complaint that Bush’s doctrine of preemption traduces international law is the most serious charge laid against it. But is it well founded? Bush’s statement does not strike a posture that places America above the law, as some critics have suggested. To the contrary, it seeks to embed the new doctrine in established legal traditions. “For centuries,” it asserts, “international law [has] recognized that nations need not suffer an attack before they can lawfully take action to defend themselves.” And it continues: “We must adapt [this] concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries.” Those capabilities include weapons of mass destruction that can be “easily concealed, delivered covertly, and used without warning.”

In this, Bush is on strong legal ground. The issue of preemption is as old as international law itself. Hugo Grotius, the 17th-century Dutch political philosopher who first formulated the idea of international law, asserted the legality of “kill[ing] him who is preparing to kill.” Emmerich de Vattel, the second most important name in the early development of international law, explained further:

A nation has the right to resist the injury that another seeks to inflict upon it, and to use force . . . against the aggressor. It may even anticipate the other’s design, being careful, however, not to act upon vague and doubtful suspicions, lest it should run the risk of becoming itself the aggressor.1

The right of self-defense was asserted by the U.S. government in the course of the negotiation of the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 in such absolute terms as to encompass preemptive self-defense as well. The State Department then declared:

The right to self-defense . . . is inherent in every sovereign state and implicit in every treaty. Every nation is free at all times and regardless of treaty provisions to defend its territory from attack or invasion and it alone is competent to decide whether circumstances require recourse to war in self-defense.

As the State Department also acknowledged, such a broad understanding might well mean that what one state would claim as self-defense would be called aggression by another. There was no solution to this, it said, except that the state whose claim was well-founded would be accorded the general sympathy of the rest of the world.

The United Nations was created in order to move the world beyond a situation in which victims had no recourse but “self-help” to one in which all states could rely upon a global structure of peace. This would be made up of the rules and procedures enumerated in chapter seven of the UN Charter, whose enforcement is the principal responsibility of the Security Council. But it was hardly expected that states would simultaneously give up their prior rights. As the relevant sentence reads: “Nothing in the present charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”

True, this wording left some mystery as to whether the “inherent right” of self-defense would be “impaired” in cases other than when an armed attack had already taken place, such as in the face of a threat of attack. Perhaps the clearest test of this very issue occurred in 1967, when the Arab states sought a Security Council condemnation of Israel’s preemptive strikes that inaugurated the Six-Day war. The Security Council rebuffed the Arab motion, and so did the General Assembly, which had not yet then become the Charlie McCarthy of the Arab caucus that it is today. In other words, the UN did not judge Israel’s first strike to have been illegal.



Legal niceties aside, common sense likewise tells us that the right of self-defense cannot be compromised by the adoption of the UN Charter, if only because chapter seven has, in sad reality, proved to be a dead letter. It envisions a UN general staff and a commitment of substantial military resources by all member states to a mighty international force, to be deployed as needed by the Security Council in order to enforce the peace. In practice, the UN has managed to fulfill this role exactly twice in its history: in Korea in 1950 and in the Persian Gulf in 1991. Both were unusual moments of Security Council comity not readily replicated (in the former case, the U.S. was able to take advantage of the fact that the Soviet delegate was boycotting the session). And in both cases, the assembled military forces, although they flew a UN flag, were largely American. With the UN having failed to develop into a genuine rampart of peace and security, the preexisting right of states to provide their own security must be assumed to remain intact.

If the right to self-defense, including anticipatory self-defense, remains above dispute, that still leaves open the question of whether this principle may be extended, as in Bush’s interpretation, to cover the right to take action against the deployment or imminent deployment of weapons of mass destruction in an aggressive manner or by an aggressive state. Citing this very case, some have said that the Bush strategy strays beyond the issue of preemption, where the threat is immediate and palpable, to claim a new right of preventive war. But the distinction between the two concepts is not so easy to make. The reasons were spelled out by President John F. Kennedy in response to the appearance of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962: “We no longer live,” said Kennedy,

in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation’s security to constitute maximum peril. Nuclear weapons are so destructive and ballistic missiles are so swift that any substantially increased possibility of their use or any sudden change in their deployment may well be regarded as a definite threat to peace.

Similar reasoning informed Israel’s decision to bomb Iraq’s nuclear plant at Osirak in 1981. As it happens, that action was condemned by the Security Council (by then, the UN’s anti-Israel majority had strengthened), and the United States joined in the vote. In retrospect, however, a number of U.S. officials have publicly regretted this stance, and it is doubtful that, were the events rerun, the U.S. would act today as it did in 1981. As Secretary of State Colin Powell said recently: “It was a clear preemptive military strike. Everyone now is quite pleased [that Israel did it] even though they got the devil criticized out of them at the time.”

What this suggests is that, as with most questions of international law, there is no definitive answer to the legal soundness of Bush’s doctrine of preemption in cases involving weapons of mass destruction. But there can be no doubt whatsoever that powerful legal arguments exist on its behalf. The politicians and pundits who decry it as a travesty of international law are talking through their hats.



Another Major controversy sparked by the Bush strategy concerns its determination to maintain America’s military preeminence. Bush’s approach, said Al Gore, “not only celebrates American strengths but appears to be glorifying the notion of dominance.” The goal of “freez[ing] current U.S. global superiority in place forever,” chimed in Business Week, “could generate more instability, not less.”

But, contrary to Gore’s characterization, the Bush document, at least in its tone and mode of presentation, avoids triumphalism and says nothing at all about “dominance.” Its emphasis is on cultivating good relations with what it calls, somewhat quaintly, the other “great powers,” with whom we hope to build “fruitful habits of consultation, quiet argument, sober analysis, and common action.”

Of course, the statement also contains a pledge to maintain military forces powerful enough to deter competition from “potential adversaries.” But what is wrong with that? The goal of continued superiority is not absolute, as it is not aimed at friendly powers. Unlikely though the prospect may be, if a united Europe with a common security policy were to invest heavily in military strength, nothing in the Bush strategy would compel us to discourage it. Indeed, U.S. officials continue to badger European governments to enhance their military capabilities, even though the natural outcome of any such policy would be to make Europe more independent, and perhaps even more critical, of the U.S. than it is today.

As for potential adversaries, should the United States not strive to discourage them from mounting a military rivalry? What nation would act differently? And what good would come of it? It is ironic that some of the same voices that for years bemoaned the “arms race” now object to a U.S. plan to forestall future arms races.



But this brings us to the final complaint about the strategy paper, which is that it embodies the already much-decried Bush tendency toward “unilateralism.” “If the unilateralists [in Washington] get their way,” said former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, who now writes a column for Forbes, “bin Laden . . . will have won.” For his part, Al Gore fretted that Bush was sabotaging “America’s prospects for continuing the historic leadership we began providing” when we persuaded the world to found the United Nations.

One would never know from these comments that Bush’s paper makes a deep bow to multilateralism, affirming that “there is little of lasting consequence that the United States can accomplish in the world without the sustained cooperation of its allies and friends in Canada and Europe.” But the real point has to do with the pious invocation of multilateralism itself as a self-evidently noble thing. In World War II, the Axis powers were a multilateral force, while for a time Britain fought unilaterally. The Czechoslovaks stood alone in 1968, as the multilateral forces of the Warsaw Pact snuffed out their hopes for freedom. Israel fought alone in 1948 as the multilateral forces of the Arab League tried to strangle it in its cradle. In short, the moral standing of multilateral action depends entirely on circumstances and aims.

Much of the criticism of the Bush administration’s unilateralism has centered on its rejection of such initiatives as the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the International Criminal Court, and the like. But a nation’s obligation under international law is to obey the law that exists, not to join in creating new law that it finds ill-considered. Bush makes this point obliquely in the strategy paper when he says that “international obligations are to be taken seriously. . . . not to be undertaken symbolically.” In any case, though, what rankles critics of American unilateralism even more than our reluctance to adopt specific initiatives is the unwillingness of the United States to subordinate itself in general to the United Nations. Here they are being hypocritical.

To repeat: in its main political purposes, the United Nations has been an almost wholly feckless body throughout its 57 years, except for those rare occasions on which it has in effect subordinated itself to U.S. policy. It is difficult to imagine any other nation engaging in the kind of self-abnegation that has been demanded of the United States vis-à-vis the UN, least of all some of the nations most critical of American unilateralism. There is in fact ample reason to believe that this demand is itself motivated by nothing more than national egoism on the part of states that envy America’s power or see themselves as rivals. As Fareed Zakaria has put it: “France and Russia have turned the United Nations into a stage from which to pursue naked self-interest. They have used multilateralism as a way to further unilateral policies.” Nor would such American truckling do anything but harm to the causes of peace and human rights, causes that are upheld more consistently by the United States than by the United Nations.

More important than whether the United States acts unilaterally or multilaterally are the purposes for which it acts. And here we come to the most interesting and important, not to say astonishing, aspects of the Bush strategy, if also the ones that have been the most overlooked. For these add up to nothing less than the resurrection of a Wilsonian approach to U.S. foreign policy.



The term Wilsonian is sometimes used to suggest an obtuse utopianism. But in its best construction it connotes both a sensitivity to moral considerations and an enlightened self-interest that links our own well-being to the state of the world around us.

However much the new national-security strategy may contemplate unilateral action, its aims are to promote the general good. “We do not use our strength to press for unilateral advantage,” the document declares. “We seek instead to create a balance of power that favors human freedom.” And it adds: “the aim of this strategy is to help make the world not just safer but better.”

Those who are suspicious of American motives will dismiss these pronouncements as self-serving. But they are a very far cry from the words of George Bush during the 2000 election campaign. When asked, “Have you formed any guiding principles for exercising [America’s] enormous power?,” the Republican presidential candidate replied: “The first question is what’s in the best interests of the United States.”

If its concern for the general good is one sense in which Bush’s strategy may be called Wilsonian, another is its insistence that America’s ideals must constitute the starting point for America’s policies. On this point, the document states:

In pursuit of our goals, our first imperative is to clarify what we stand for: the United States must defend liberty and justice because these principles are right and true for all people everywhere. No nation owns these aspirations, and no nation is exempt from them.

Furthermore, Bush is convinced that American principles are of universal validity, and his strategy statement contains as forceful an assertion of this universalism as may be found:

People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children—male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labor. These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society—and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages.2

Then there is the choice of methods for a long-term solution to the problems addressed by this strategy. Fighting terrorists and maintaining our military superiority are essential to our safety in the here and now; but beyond the urgencies of self-defense, Bush aims to neutralize the threats we face by spreading the balm of democracy. What, after all, is a “balance of power that favors human freedom” but an echo of the slogan under which Woodrow Wilson led America into World War I?

A few commentators have in fact picked up on this Wilsonian spirit in Bush’s national-security strategy. The one who has captured it most cogently and sympathetically is the historian John Lewis Gaddis, writing in Foreign Policy. For Gaddis,

There is a compellingly realistic reason now to complete the idealistic task Woodrow Wilson began more than eight decades ago: the world must be made safe for democracy, because otherwise democracy will not be safe in the world. The Bush . . . report could be, therefore, the most important reformulation of U.S. grand strategy in over half a century.

But even Gaddis does not quite credit the peculiarity of this development. To say that Bush is an unlikely heir to Wilson is an understatement. His father—who courted Beijing, left Saddam Hussein ruling in Baghdad, and likened the bombardment of Sarajevo to a “hiccup”—was as much a “realist” in his approach to foreign policy as any President in recent history. And many of those to whom the younger Bush looked for advice, including Condoleezza Rice, came from his father’s team. In the presidential campaign of 2000, Bush showed no sign of deviating from the paternal legacy except (as I have already noted) in the direction of being consistently less mindful of the world. In his debates with Al Gore, he differentiated his approach from that of the Clinton administration by suggesting that he would be more restrained and would focus more narrowly on the “national interest,” making sure that America behaved as a “humble nation”—a pledge that the editorialists at the New York Times would recall wistfully in writing about this new strategy paper. So detached was Bush from foreign policy in the first months of his presidency that, despite the requirements of the law, he neglected altogether to submit a national-security strategy in 2001.

But of the many things that changed on September 11, 2001, few seem to have changed more dramatically than the worldview of George W. Bush. Besides, if Bush has not always been a Wilsonian, neither, it must be said, was Woodrow Wilson. When world war broke out in 1914, Wilson championed American neutrality. In the early stages of the conflict, according to the later testimony of his Secretary of State Robert Lansing, Wilson’s “attitude toward evidence of German atrocities in Belgium and toward accounts of the horrors of submarine warfare” was that “he would not read of them and showed anger if the details were called to his attention.” It took Wilson three years to conclude that America must “spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured.”

The backgrounds of these two Presidents were quite different, although both drew on a deep Protestant faith. But in pursuit of his responsibility for the nation’s safety, each was moved by hard experience from a policy of trying to keep trouble at arm’s length to one of intense engagement, aiming to safeguard America by deploying American power to make the world safer.



For his part, President Bush has also faced squarely, as did none of his predecessors, the deep political sickness in the greater Middle East out of which grew the specific danger that manifested itself on September 11. On the scale developed by Freedom House, on which 1 means most free and 7 means least free, the median score of the 22 Arab states is 5.5, while the median for all the world’s other nations is 2.5. (Iran, not Arab but a part of the same political culture, scores a miserable 6.) The UN’s own Arab Human Development Report, itself compiled by a team of Arab intellectuals, concludes that this region suffers from critical deficits of freedom, women’s empowerment, and “human capabilities and knowledge relative to income.” Although the Arab world is far richer than sub-Saharan Africa, it scored appreciably worse on the UN report’s measures of freedom and other social goods.

What all of these barometers mean, in less euphemistic terms, is that this is a region characterized by paranoia, apocalypticism, tyranny, and violence, a region where differences are settled by the sword. Societies that behave this way internally can hardly be relied upon to settle issues with the outside pacifically.

Bush’s predecessors accepted the political culture of the Middle East as a given to which America had to adapt. Clinton hosted Yasir Arafat more often than any other foreign leader; Bush senior was especially close to the Saudis; Ronald Reagan traded arms for hostages with Iran; and Jimmy Carter paid fawning visits to the Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad. But September 11 seems to have convinced George W. Bush that another approach is needed. Although he has taken every occasion to stress that our enemy is not Islam, he has decided nonetheless to try to transform the Middle East. Thus, as his administration prepares for war in Iraq, all talk of “exit strategies,” once a centerpiece of Republican thinking and the very chef d’oeuvre of his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has vanished, while officials across Washington bone up on the history of the American occupation of Japan.

On the assumption that America does go to war in Iraq, the strategy document suggests that the aim will be not to depart hastily after the defeat and overthrow of Saddam Hussein but to leave behind a democratized country. If successful, this would have a dramatic impact on the surrounding states, starting with an Iran that is already today in the throes of instability resulting from popular demands for more freedom and government accountability. The transformation of Iraq, estimates the Iraqi scholar Kanan Makiya, could “prove to be as large as anything that has happened in the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.”



Military conquest, perhaps surprisingly to some, has often proved to be an effective means of implanting democracy. Nevertheless, the United States is hardly about to invade countries that pose no military threat solely for the purpose of democratizing them. There are, however, political measures by means of which the project of democratization can be advanced elsewhere in the Middle East. Some have already been initiated by the Bush administration; others will have to be adopted if the strategy is to succeed. These include: continuing to insist on openness and accountability in the Palestinian Authority, safeguarding Afghanistan’s political and economic reconstruction, supporting the political liberalization under way in Qatar and Bahrain, rethinking our blank-check policy toward the domestic behavior of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, championing the independence of Lebanon, and working to undermine the retrograde regimes of Syria and Libya.

Can we succeed? No one can know. What we do know is that over the past three decades, the world as a whole has experienced a profound political transformation. Today, more than 63 percent of the world’s states are ruled by freely elected governments—double the proportion of 30 years ago. This large majority includes significant numbers of states in every non-Arab region, even sub-Saharan Africa. In other words, it includes nations and regions where, according to the received wisdom of a generation or two ago, the Western plant of democracy could not successfully take root. Can it be that the Arabs will prove to be the sole stubborn exception to this trend? If so, then a widening political and cultural chasm will separate the Arab world, and perhaps the greater Middle East, from the rest of mankind, a situation that in itself will demand new strategies and policies. We cannot yet resign ourselves to such a bleak prospect.

But words are one thing, acts another. Having devised and presented a strategy apposite to the threat confronting the United States, George Bush must demonstrate the skill, courage, and determination to execute it. And there will be obstacles aplenty, not least from the critics whose ranks multiply with every sign of presidential wavering and whose warnings and plaints sound uncannily like those faced in an earlier age by Harry S. Truman when he launched the policy of containment.

Truman’s request for aid to Greece and Turkey was denounced by one prominent Senator as “a new American imperialism,” aimed at securing “oil for the American monopolies.” The columnist Walter Lippmann warned that by failing to work through the newly established UN, Truman had “cut a hole in the charter which it would be very difficult to repair.” It was only because such voices were spurned that the world was eventually delivered from the shadow of Soviet tyranny.

Now as then, the critics offer no real alternative strategy, only a counsel of evasion. In 1947, when the UN was but two years old, the notion that the world body could serve as a substitute for the exercise of America’s own will and power may perhaps have been a pardonable hope. Today, when we know better, such advice is worse than pusillanimous; it is utterly cynical. By contrast, Bush’s response to the challenge that was brought home to us last September 11 is both thoughtful and brave. Our national security is indeed at issue. Everything now is riding on the follow-through.



1 These quotations appear in a paper by David M. Ackerman, legislative attorney in the American-law division of the Congressional Research Service.

2 This last clause is in its own way a radical assertion of multilateralism, albeit not the multilateralism of the UN, which fails to differentiate between democracies and tyrannies.


About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.

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