Of all the objections put forth to a second Bush term, two in particular pose the gravest threat to the president’s reelection bid. The first is the notion of a “fresh start.” Advanced by the Kerry campaign, it posits that by jettisoning a president deeply unpopular outside the United States, specifically in Western Europe but also in a host of Middle Eastern countries, we greatly increase our odds of quelling the latest spasm of anti-Americanism and enlisting international backing for the war against Islamist terrorism.
A derivative argument is put forth by would-be Kerry supporters, most prominently Andrew Sullivan. In briefest outline, this argument contends that as a consequence of our enduring troubles in Iraq, there will be markedly little difference between a Bush and a Kerry foreign policy. Therefore, anyone unsettled by the president’s domestic agenda — a not insignificant portion of the electorate, if the polls are any indication — but decidedly unimpressed with both Kerry’s record on foreign policy and his vision thereof — a yet broader swath of the electorate — may as well cast their lot with the Massachusetts senator.
Now, by and large, the president’s supporters — and, less frequently, the president himself — have done a capable job detailing the Kerry’s foreign policy flubs. Everything from Kerry’s refusal to support the first Gulf war, despite a broad coalition, to the dovish dispensation that landed him on the wrong side of Ronald Reagan’s challenge to the Soviet Union, to his position on the Iraq war, which may described in the singular only as an act of charity — all of it has been adduced as evidence of Kerry’s inability to prosecute a global war on Islamist terrorism with the necessary robustness. Likewise, the senator’s gainsayers have effectively demonstrated that Kerry’s conception of this war — as a petty criminal offense on par with prostitution and illegal gambling — sets far too timid a scope on the menace of Islamic fundamentalism, eliding its obvious connection to failed Middle Eastern states in order to justify a more “realist” (read: less assertive) foreign policy.
Such criticism is both accurate and necessary. Against the above-mentioned arguments, however, the president’s supporters have mounted little in the way of a defense. That is a mistake, for it is these two arguments that are the most likely to swing undecided voters into the Kerry camp.
LET US TURN FIRST to the “fresh start” theory. This would have us believe that both the global upsurge in anti-Americanism — a real-enough phenomenon, to be fair — and consequently the evident lack of substantial international support in Iraq, can be entirely ascribed to the president’s aggressive foreign policy. And, to be sure, there’s no denying that the president’s decision to topple Saddam Hussein is the subject of heated resentment in Paris, not least for its conspicuous disregard for the interests of Baath-friendly French arms dealers. As someone who regularly reads the German press, I can similarly report that that country’s public has not overcome its opposition to the U.S. mission in Iraq (though the popular view that the twin towers were wired by warmongering U.S. authorities to explode on September 11 happily appears to be on the wane).
Things are in a bad way indeed. So low is the president’s present standing in some European capitals, so disdained is his “militarism” by the snake pit of Middle East’s tin-pot tyrants, that it is safe to say that Bush is the most unpopular American president since, well, the last one.
Have we forgotten that? Don’t count on the Democratic faithful to mention it, but the international community was none too enamored of U.S. foreign policy under Bill Clinton, who today enjoys a surprising reputation as a model multilateralist. Let us begin by recalling that Jacques Chirac’s bitter verdict — “If you want to find idiotic behavior you can always count on the Americans” — was issued in 1995, long before any Texan “cowboy” had occasion to offend the Fifth Republic’s delicate sensibilities. Think back, too, to Clinton’s decision, in 1998, to fire a missile at that suspected al-Qaeda redoubt, a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory. Condemned by conservatives as a half-hearted strike against terrorism, it nonetheless met with international outrage. European sophisticates peddled conspiracy theories maintaining that tens of thousands of Sudanese, denied precious medicines, had perished in the months following the strike. The Arab press, meanwhile, seethed with hatred. Excoriated for his attack on Sudan, Clinton — and by extension America — was then savaged for its alleged coddling of Israel — a fantastic charge to level against the administration that pressured the Jewish state to negotiate with the one of world’s leading terrorists, Yasir Arafat.
The point, then, is this: Right or wrong, unilateral or multilateral, America will remain the object of global scorn. Notwithstanding their alleged fan club of foreign leaders, international adoration must remain the elusive dream of Democratic hopefuls. True, the absence of substantial international support in Iraq is regrettable. True, too, the Bush administration has a distressing propensity for tactlessness. But to point to the unpopularity of the administration’s foreign policy as evidence of its folly is to get things precisely backward: Whatever his failings as an orator, the president’s instincts about the war against Islamic terrorism are correct.
WHICH IS WHERE Andrew Sullivan’s contention comes in. It holds that even conceding Bush’s superior vision of foreign policy — that vigorous democracy promotion in the Middle East is the most effective foil against Islamist terrorism — its practical implications in the second term would be negligible, given the festering violence in Iraq. By way of example, Sullivan points to the president’s admittedly unfortunate decision to truckle to European consensus on the question of Iran. Bowing to the EU’s diplomatic brass, the U.S. has now green lighted a plan to grant the mullahs access to imported nuclear fuel, if only they would agree to suspend their ongoing uranium enrichment. Kerry has endorsed a similar strategy. Furthermore, the Bush administration has opted for diplomacy with a North Korean regime whose sincerity is very much in doubt.
These developments would seem to buttress Sullivan’s conclusion that, so far as defense issues are concerned, a second Bush term would not significantly depart from a Kerry administration. For undecided voters loath to trust the war against radical Islam to a dovish Democrat, but dubious of the merits of a second Bush administration, this birds-of-a-feather theory would seem to sanction a gamble on a Kerry presidency.
On its face, this logic seems unimpeachable. After all, few would quarrel with the assertion that, in light of our current woes in Iraq, the chances of American force being used for the purposes of regime change and democracy promotion must incline toward the immensely improbable. At the same time, barring proof of omniscience on the part of our intelligence services, the absence of stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq will preclude preemptive war in the near future. In other words, the Bush doctrine is dead.
Yet this analysis is flawed on four counts. First, it obligingly assumes that Kerry has a set policy for places like North Korea. The evidence for this, presumably, comes from the presidential debates, when Kerry made a point of heaping scorn on the Bush administration’s preferred multilateral talks with Pyongyang. Just one problem: In 2003, Kerry came out in favor of the Bush administration’s North Korea policy. That is, before he came out against it.
Second, it supposes that the Bush administration’s vision for democratic reform in the Middle East rests solely on military intervention. That’s simply untrue. Working through the National Endowment for Democracy, the Bush administration has consistently sponsored dissident groups to undercut rogue regimes throughout the Middle East. In 2002 alone, the NED disbursed $75,000 to Iranian dissidents. Moreover, the NED has worked to shore up democratic movements even in allied countries. In 2002, the NED provided $656,000 to human rights groups in Egypt, and $209, 000 to women’s rights groups in Jordan. Another $680, 000 went to groups working to promote freedom of the press, human rights and democracy in Afghanistan. In recognition of the NED’s work, the president has proposed doubling its $40 million yearly budget in his second term.
Third, it blurs an important distinction between the president and Kerry. Should conditions in Iraq improve, hardly an implausible scenario, there is nothing in the administration’s record to suggest that it will retreat from its tough-minded approach to the Middle East. Kerry, on the other hand, rejects this approach outright. To it put more starkly, for a second Bush administration, rapprochement with rogue states would remain a policy of last resort. In a Kerry administration, it would be the destination.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, this all-candidates-being-equal argument mistakenly assumes that a change in presidential leadership will have little impact on the effort to reshape the political culture of the Middle East currently underway. In fact, quite the opposite is likely. One of the unacknowledged successes of the first Bush term has been the emergence of reformist, pro-democratic stirrings in the Middle East. Thanks partly to the president’s repeated calls for liberal democracy in the region, and mainly to the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, autocratic regimes have been forcefully put on notice that the United States will no longer excuse the Middle East’s freedom deficit. Consequently, entrenched power from Riyadh to Cairo is coming under criticism from first time in history. Today, dissenting voices can be heard pressing for everything from elected legislative assemblies and independent judiciaries, to freedom of the press. Nearly needless to say, this development would have been unthinkable prior to the Bush presidency.
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