I remember listening to Bush’s second inaugural address and being impressed with the high ambitions, the utopian dream of remaking the world in our image and defeating tyranny everywhere. I also remember thinking how ludicrously impossible this was as a policy objective. The United States has interests and it has values. And, as we seem to learn and then quickly forget, the two never line up perfectly. As the years have gone by since that day in early 2004, the president has learned this lesson as well, and the talk about democracy and our power to transform other societies has largely evaporated.
It’s easy to forget when a leader’s rhetoric ends up as nothing more than hot air, or — to be charitable — just good intention. The media tends not to report on what doesn’t happen. So it was useful today to read Peter Baker’s account of how exactly Bush’s lofty goal of “ending tyranny in the world” crashed and burned. Even though Baker left out some pretty big examples of what this naïve approach to foreign policy has yielded - there is very little on Iraq - he does a good job tracking its up and down trajectory. He also clearly identifies the turning point when democratization alone was exposed as too simple a guiding principle: Hamas’s win in the Palestinian elections pretty much put the final nail in it.
But Baker only skims over what might be the most important piece of this: the lasting implication of Bush’s failed idealism. It will be a long time before leaders will feel comfortable acting purely in the name of American values. We seem to be returning to an age of Realpolitik. With Iraq still an open and blistering wound, few people will lament this turn. But foreign policy could swing too far in this direction. And that is not a good thing either.