07 November 2003

Bush on the global spread of democracy

Last evening US President Bush delivered a speech to mark the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy. In it he described and celebrated what he sees as a global movement towards democratization. Near the end of his address came something that sounds very like a confession of faith:

The advance of freedom is the calling of our time; it is the calling of our country. From the Fourteen Points [of Pres. Woodrow Wilson] to the Four Freedoms [of Franklin D. Roosevelt], to [Ronald Reagan's 1982] Speech at Westminster, America has put our power at the service of principle. We believe that liberty is the design of nature; we believe that liberty is the direction of history. We believe that human fulfillment and excellence come in the responsible exercise of liberty. And we believe that freedom -- the freedom we prize -- is not for us alone, it is the right and the capacity of all mankind.

Working for the spread of freedom can be hard. Yet, America has accomplished hard tasks before. Our nation is strong; we're strong of heart. And we're not alone. Freedom is finding allies in every country; freedom finds allies in every culture. And as we meet the terror and violence of the world, we can be certain the author of freedom is not indifferent to the fate of freedom.

The test of Bush's policy is, of course, Afghanistan and Iraq, where American policy aims at building democratic constitutions and stable government. No one denies that this is a noble aim. But the future may disappoint these high expectations. Here is Bush on Afghanistan:

With the steady leadership of President Karzai, the people of Afghanistan are building a modern and peaceful government. Next month, 500 delegates will convene a national assembly in Kabul to approve a new Afghan constitution. The proposed draft would establish a bicameral parliament, set national elections next year, and recognize Afghanistan's Muslim identity, while protecting the rights of all citizens. Afghanistan faces continuing economic and security challenges -- it will face those challenges as a free and stable democracy.

My friend Paul Marshall, formerly with the Institute for Christian Studies and now with Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom, disputes this assessment, arguing that in its present form the draft Afghan constitution embodies a form of "Taliban-lite."

It is easy to pick Bush's speech apart. Indeed, if one takes its rhetoric at face value, it is infused with a sort of eclectic ideological faith drawing on elements of both liberalism and democratism (but, remarkably enough, not classic conservatism, which is far more suspicious of efforts to transplant successful institutions into other, less hospitable cultural environments). This faith is certain to disappoint anyone confessing it, as the fulfilment of its obvious eschatological vision continually recedes into the indefinite future.

Yet now that the US is there, it has an obligation to do right by the people of the two countries to the best of its ability. That this may not be enough, given the limited resources of even a global superpower, is all the more argument for bringing a multinational force into the picture, probably under the auspices of the United Nations.

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