Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident, tells a great story about how he first learned of Ronald Reagan’s famous (or infamous) “evil empire” speech. Writing in The Washington Post in 2000, Mr. Sharansky recalled:
“Nearly 20 years ago, confined to an 8-by-10 cell in a prison on the border of Siberia, I was granted by my Soviet jailers the ‘privilege’ of reading the latest copy of Pravda, the official mouthpiece of the communist regime. Splashed across the front page was a condemnation of Ronald Reagan for having the temerity to call the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire.’”
Mr. Sharansky and the other inmates didn’t share Pravda’s outrage. “Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, prisoners quickly spread the word of Reagan’s ‘provocation’ throughout the prison. The dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the Free World had spoken the truth.”
Whatever you may think of the “axis of evil” declaration in the president’s State of the Union address, we can be sure that there are dissidents in Iran, Iraq and North Korea who feel the same way Natan Sharansky did nearly two decades ago.
And just as President Reagan (who celebrated his 91st birthday this week) was subjected to the jeers and giggles of the Washington establishment, President Bush is being mocked though nowhere near as much as Mr. Reagan was for speaking the truth too bluntly rather than being diplomatic, i.e. telling lies cleverly.
Such diplomacy was much in vogue in Washington until recently. Recall that during the previous administration, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright felt that calling terrorist states “rogue nations” was too judgmental, so she rechristened them “states of concern.” One wonders if Mr. Bush’s critics would be happier if he would split the difference and called these countries an “axis of concern.”
There are many differences between Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, which is only appropriate since we live in different times. But there are many similarities as well, and the most glaring in the wake of September 11 is that both stand for an American foreign policy that is moral and American.
Ronald Reagan broke with the longstanding policy of detente, under which the United States assumed it could deal with the Soviets as if they were just another country rather than recognize them, in the words of Mr. Reagan, as “the focus of evil in the modern world.”
Similarly, George W. Bush insists the United States not be held hostage to the demands of political correctness in our foreign policy (though I could do without so many presidential proclamations that “Islam means peace”). “States of concern” sounds like a 12-step anger management course for people prone to “road rage.” The people we are dealing with are evil. Their regimes are evil. And while they technically may not form an “axis” in the way Germany, Japan and Italy did in World War II, they are connected in their ability to threaten the United States.
That brings us to the American part of our foreign policy. Many conservatives and liberals alike cringe at the suggestion that the United States should become the “world’s policeman.” This has always been a straw man. The correct question is whether the United States should police the world when it is in our interest. And the answer now and for the foreseeable future is clearly yes.
This administration has made it known time and again it will work with the “international community” when the international community works for us. But when it comes to America’s vital national interests, the United States will do what it’s got to do, help or no help.
Clinton-era and Gore campaign “multilateralists” called such views “isolationist” because they could not fathom that the United States is more right alone than it is after it consults our United Nations “partners” such as Syria, which sits on the U.N.’s Human Rights Commission while we do not.
Now even they can see Mr. Bush is anything but an isolationist: “I will not wait on events while dangers gather,” President Bush declared in his State of the Union address. “I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” He added, The “axis of evil [is] is arming to threaten the peace of the world.”
Mr. Bush’s foreign policy shows that he’s learned the lesson that the United States is most likely to do the most right in the world when it does what is right for the United States, because we are still, in the words of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, the world’s “last best hope.”
Consider Iran. The Iranian government denounced Mr. Bush’s plan to expand American “hegemony.” Meanwhile, the young people in Iran openly chant “U.S.A., U.S.A.” in soccer stadiums as a way to protest the only hegemonists they really care about their own tyrannical government. Surely, these kids, like Mr. Sharansky in the Soviet Union, are grateful for Mr. Bush’s honesty.
Jonah Goldberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.