Identity crisis …

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I picked up the Village Voice for the first time in years this week. Couldn’t resist the cover story: “The Eve of Destruction: George W Bush’s four-year plan to wreck the world.”

Oh, dear. It’s so easy to raise expectations at the beginning of a new presidential term. But at least Mr. Bush has a four-year plan. Over on the Democratic bench, worldwise, they don’t seem to have given things much thought.

The differences were especially stark this past seven days: In the first half of the week, Senate Dems badgered the incoming secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice — culminating in the decision of West Virginia porkmeister Robert C. Byrd to delay the incoming thereof. Don’t ask me why. Mr. Byrd, the former Klu Klux Klan kleagle, is taking a stand over states’ rights, or his rights over State, or some such.

Whatever the reason, the sight of an old Klansman blocking a little colored girl from Birmingham from getting into her office contributed to the general retro vibe hanging around the Democratic Party these days. Even “Eve of Destruction,” one notes, is a 40-year-old hippie dirge.

The Democrats’ big phrase is “exit strategy.” Time and again, their senators demanded that Miss Rice tell ‘em the “exit strategy” for Iraq. The correct answer is: There isn’t and there shouldn’t be one, and it’s a dumb expression.

The more polite response came in the president’s Inaugural address: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” Next week’s Iraq election will go not perfectly but well enough, and in time the number of U.S. troops needed there will be reduced, and in some more time they’ll be reduced more dramatically, and one day there will be none at all, just a small diplomatic presence that functions a bit like the old British ministers did in the Gulf emirates for centuries — they know everyone and everything, and they keep the Iraqi-American relationship running smoothly enough that Baghdad doesn’t start looking for other foreign patrons. In other words: no exit.

If you want an example of “exit strategy” thinking, look no further than the southern “border.” A century ago, American policy in Mexico was all exit and no strategy. That week’s president-for-life gets out of hand? Go in, whack him, exit and let the locals figure out who gets to be the new bad guy. If the new guy gets out of hand, go back, whack him and exit again.

The result of that stunted policy is that three-quarters of Mexico’s population now lives in California and Arizona — and, as fine upstanding members of the Undocumented-American community, they have no exit strategy at all.

By contrast, the British went in to India without an “exit strategy,” stayed for generations and midwifed the world’s most populous democracy and a key U.S. ally in the years ahead. Which looks like the smarter approach now? “Most Indians say ‘thumbs up’ to second Bush term,” reported the Christian Science Monitor this week, “and no, that doesn’t mean something rude in Indian culture.”

The problem with the “exit strategy” fetish is that these days everywhere’s Mexico — literally, in the sense that four of the September 11 killers obtained the picture ID they used to board their flights that morning through the support network for “undocumented” workers. And only a few days ago the suspected terrorists supposedly en route to Boston were said to have entered the country via the Mexican smuggling route. But everywhere is also Mexico in the more figurative sense — if you have a few hundred bucks and an ATM card, you can come to America and blow it up. Everyone lives next door now. September 11, 2001, demonstrated the paradox of America — the isolationist superpower — was no longer tenable.

That was what George W. Bush accomplished so superbly in his speech: the idealistic position — spreading liberty — is now also the realist one. If you don’t spread it, in the end your own liberty will be jeopardized. “It is the policy of the United States,” said the president, “to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” By the end of his second term? Well, not necessarily.

What matters is the president repudiated the failed “realism” that showers billions on a friendly dictator like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and is then surprised when one of his subjects flies a passenger jet into the World Trade Center.

You would think the Democratic Party would welcome this: It spent the days after September 11 yakking endlessly about the need to address “root causes.” But, as the pitiful displays in the Senate hearing made clear, they still don’t comprehend the new world — abroad or at home.

The other day David von Drehle of The Washington Post did a monster tour of what he called “The Red Sea” — Bush country — and went to almost painful lengths to eschew the condescension the coastal media elite usually apply to their rare anthropological ventures into the hinterland.

But in the middle of his dispatch was this quote from Joyce Smith of Coalgate, Okla.: “When Kerry said he was for abortion and one-sex ‘marriages,’ I just couldn’t see our country being led by someone like that.”

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