Political Hay

What I Should Have Said With the Merlot in Hand

How to engage the Left about George W. Bush and the spread of freedom.

By 2.3.05

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SAN DIEGO -- My wife and I were catching up the other night with a friend whom we had not seen in months. Call her Audrey.

But for the fact that she attends church every week and avoids coffee, this woman could be a Blue State archetype.

Audrey lives in a rent-controlled apartment six blocks from the beach. She is a psychiatric nurse, a Reiki practitioner, and a student of Shamanic drumming.

Sitting in my living room sipping Merlot (our doormat says, "We serve only the finest California wines. Did you bring any?"), Audrey confessed to despising the American mission articulated by George W. Bush. "How arrogant can one man be?" she fumed. "Who do we think we are, trying to impose our system of government on the rest of the world? Why is it our job to end tyranny? That should be up to organizations like NATO and the United Nations."

Unwilling to abet intentional blindness to scenic vistas in the sweet uplands of Reason, but not yet equipped with the State of the Union line about how the United States has "no right, no desire, and no intention to impose our form of government on anyone else," I answered with, "We're the only country with resources enough to tackle big problems, and the United Nations is just a debating society for despots."

Audrey scowled, unconvinced. We refilled our glasses and moved on to speculation about whether the puppy playing at our feet might eventually weigh eighty pounds.

For me, the episode was a failure of rhetorical skill. The contrast between Audrey's view and my own was as vivid as the horse jumping across the wine bottle label with a blocky-looking rider in Picasso perspective on its back. Despite our Latin forebears, neither of us could find veritas in vino, or, for that matter, in "verbo."

"Impose"? Please. Furthering the advance of freedom around the world is arguably the single most defensible goal of American foreign policy today. But how to make that point to people who mock the president for his ambition?

Audrey would admit that abbreviations like "ICBM" entered the American lexicon many years ago. But she doesn't realize what that implies, and doesn't see that Islamofascists one-upped even the Communists of the Cold War era to prove that Walt Disney was right about ours being a small world after all. Given the date we all remember as 9-11, "mind your own business" isn't the sensible foreign policy that it used to be. I know the pedigree of that policy, but George Washington was never the isolationist some people make him out to be, and of course he could not have foreseen the rise of things like outsourcing and aviation.

Yet the pragmatic argument ("better to fight enemies on their turf than our own") makes less of an impression on the Left than it should. Next time someone fires a fusillade of similar questions at me, I'll abandon references to America's gross national product and twelve aircraft carrier battle groups in favor of an immediate retreat to first principles.

I DON'T MEAN CHURCHILL'S DICTUM about democracy being the worst of all possible forms of government "except for all the others." I mean Walter Russell Mead's theory of American foreign policy as a river formed by the unique confluence of tributaries named for Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson. I mean that in some sense, we regard Swiss-style neutrality as cowardice, not least because it hides the light of freedom under a bushel basket. And I mean the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, wherein we find the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, where good and faithful servants are those who multiply their master's money, rather than burying it for safekeeping.

Certainly it's legitimate -- if condescending -- to ask whether the influence of premillennial dispensationalist theology makes some policymakers too optimistic about things that could trigger apocalypse now. I also think it would be fun to keep Peggy Noonan company while she searches in vain for messianic dust bunnies under the West Wing sofas, thrusting her handy-vac of a Wall Street Journal column into dark corners even the First Dogs have yet to explore.

But what drives the Left crazy is not that America has no humility. In fact we've got humility to burn, and when we need more of it we can always top off by looking upward on a starry night or pondering the wonders of Yosemite Valley and the Grand Canyon.

The problem for the Left is that American humility is so narrowly focused. "Power to the people" sounds like a nice democratic slogan, but when you're pushing for or against an agenda, it makes headaches in a country where so many citizens refuse to grovel before anyone this side of God.

Stunned into compliance by the mallet of postmodern cynicism, fish in the "reality-based" community forget what it's like to swim in the open ocean where the powerful current of the American Dream reminds the rest of us of what is possible.

Recall that when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, its primary effect was psychological rather than practical. Lincoln "freed" slaves in parts of the country that were not then under federal control. All George W. Bush is trying to do is apply the same standard to the rest of the world.

When you think that way about current events, you're forced to suspect that perhaps the internationalist Left is more insensitive than the allegedly redneck Right. We who think highly of freedom want to share it with the people of the Middle East. Our neighbors, for all their talk of solidarity with the oppressed, would rather not go to all that trouble.

GEOGRAPHY WORKS AGAINST THE American Left, however. "We live in the country where the biggest dreams are born," said the president, high-fiving fellow members of his "faith-based community" with uncharacteristic subtlety while a host of people past and present nodded assent to his claim (you think the Forty-Niners, the Suffragettes, the Freedom Riders, and the immigrants who built Lockheed Martin's famous "Skunk Works" would disagree?) Freedom makes the American Dream possible. And like the Good Book says, much is expected from those to whom much has been given.

The fear on the Left is that if freedom is the universal aspiration that the president keeps saying it is, then there may not be a populist base from which to challenge what this administration is doing to promote its spread. As Nibras Kazimi wrote in the New York Sun about the Iraqi elections, "Eight suicide bombers targeted polling stations in Iraq on Sunday, yet eight million Iraqi chose to vote anyway."

George W. Bush and his administration are doing freedom's math. Sometimes they add wrong. But as Americans -- and, more to the point, as responsible humans -- they can't, and shouldn't, stop. There are precedents for this in natural law and in the Bible, both with respect to how God wants talent used and why the Good Samaritan paid cash up front.

Will Audrey and people like her accept that? I'll have to call around to find out.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.