- The Washington Times - Monday, June 7, 2004

Presidents should eschew great expectations in foreign affairs. Imponderables dwarf certitudes. Knowledge of how to alter political cultures, to inculcate the rule of law, or to spark successful insurgencies against oppressive governments remains embryonic after thousands of years of experience and observation. At its best, the science of international affairs is a science of educated speculation.

The folly of President Bush has been to create great expectations for democracy in Iraq and the Middle East and a world purged of the scourge of terrorism without plausible justification for optimism. The presidential wish has fathered ill-considered thoughts and misconceived strategy. When the expectations he has touted are defeated, Mr. Bush’s credibility and popularity will plunge.

His wiser course would have been to create low expectations by confessing the intractabilities in bringing peace and democracy to lands where the two have been alien for centuries or more. He should have preached the substantial probability of presidential error in forecasting happenings and effectuating change abroad, and a corresponding willingness to acknowledge error and to adjust policy accordingly.

The president’s commencement address at the Air Force Academy last week exemplifies his great expectations misadventure. He pontificated: “Like the Second World War, our present conflict began with a ruthless surprise attack on the United States … and we will accept nothing less than victory over the enemy.” But even defining victory in the war against international terrorism is elusive. Does it mean keeping the number of terrorist casualties below an annual global, regional or national ceiling? Should such ceilings be placed on terrorist incidents in lieu of terrorist killings? Or does victory mean killing or capturing a specified percentage of terrorists, or forestalling new recruits? Mr. Bush’s rhetoric suggests he will eliminate terrorism permanently from the face of the Earth, a great expectation that is patently unachievable.

Mr. Bush insisted that “terrorists underestimate the strength of free peoples” to support his expectation of a crushing victory over terrorism. The assertion, however, seems misplaced. Cuba, Syria, Iran and North Korea, for instance, all sponsor terrorism. Iran and North Korea are implicated in nuclear and missile proliferation. Yet the villainous regimes of the four pariah nations have been undisturbed by free peoples for long years. None fear invasion by the United States or NATO forces. It would have been more accurate for Mr. Bush to have conceded that free peoples underestimate the ability of terrorists to club freedom loving people into subjugation.

The Middle East, Mr. Bush maintained, is the chief target of terrorists. They must be eradicated there to protect the peace and security of the United States. All lesser policies are unthinkable. He explained: “If that region is abandoned to dictators and terrorists, it will be a constant source of violence and alarm, exporting killers of increasing destructive power to attack America and other free nations. If that region grows in democracy and prosperity and hope, the terrorist movement will lose its sponsors, lose its recruits and lose the festering grievances that keep terrorists in business … Success in this struggle is our only option.”

A democratic juggernaut in the Middle East is a great ambition, but a figment for the indefinite future. Mr. Bush pledged that, “We will stand with the people of that region as they seek their future in freedom. … In the short term, we will work with every government in the Middle East dedicated to destroying terrorist networks. In the longer term, we will expect a higher standard of reform and democracy from our friends in the region.”

But the president has and will do nothing serious to disturb non-democratic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Jordan, or Persian Gulf sheikdoms. The national security of the United States covets their oil, counterterrorism cooperation, and support for an Israeli-Palestinian concordat more than freedom for their peoples. Mr. Bush would never impose economic sanctions against Saudi Arabia’s monarchy for its heavy-handed suppression of freedom of religion, free speech and human rights generally. Moreover, as the sobering lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq have taught, even if the United States militarily toppled non-democratic governments in the Middle East, the political culture and dynamics of the region would foil democratic transformations. Contrary to Mr. Bush’s incorrigible utopianism, democracy does not invariably defeat tyranny simply because liberty thrills men and women in all cultures and nations. If that were the case, the pharaohs would have succumbed to popular rule before a single pyramid had been constructed; the Soviet Union would have crumbled in days, not endured for 74 years; and, China would be sporting Taiwan’s democratic credentials, not defending the repression of Tiananmen Square. The president’s counterhistorical great expectations for liberty occasioned his risible characterization of the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan as “free and stable.”

Humble expectations should be the foreign policy creed of the United States. The wise nation knows what it doesn’t know. Presidents should acknowledge oceanic ignorance over how to change foreign governments for the better. Their rhetoric and aims should conform to that timeless truism.

Bruce Fein is a constitutional lawyer and international consultant at Bruce Fein and Associates and the Lichfield Group.



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