Classic Bushit

No, we’re not really prepared to stand up for democracy around the world.

Well, that was quick, wasn’t it?

Thursday, GWB gave a mighty pretty speech, all about freedom and how we were going to be for it from now on. A day later, that speech officially became a dead letter courtesy of one of the dreaded “senior officials” who makes official leaks, not for attribution: Bush Freedom Speech Not Sign of Policy Shift: Aides (Reuters); Bush Speech Not a Signal of New Policy, Aides Say (NYT).

Since I kinda like freedom, and think we mostly ought to be for it, I decided not to say at the time any of the snarky things that came to mind: about GWB’s coziness with the Saudi ruling family, with the nuke-peddling Pakistani military theocracy, with Putin and his KGB cronies, with the Indonesian generals who have decided to prevent tsunami relief from reaching the people of Aceh, or with the Chinese government that runs the largest, and perhaps most successful (or second-most-sucessful after Singapore) tyranny in the world.

Naturally, I was skeptical that the President who has raised bullshit to an art form and erected it into a governing principle actually meant what he said. He addressed “all those who live in tyranny and hopelessness” and promised that “when you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.”

Really? All? Forget for the moment about those who are standing for their liberty against Putin and the Chinese politboro and other rulers it would be expensive for us to alienate. There are people in Zimbabwe right now standing for their liberty, and people in Burma (I’m damned if I’ll call it Myanmar just because the SLORC prefers it that way), and people in Iran, and people in Kazakhstan.

Are we “standing with them,” or are we just standing on the sidelines lackadaisically cheering them on? Are we sending money? Communications equipment? Weapons, if that’s what they want? Will we allow this country to be used as a base for revolutionary fundraising or a source of small arms purchased privately?

I think the right anwer to give to those questions is sometimes, but not always, “Yes.” But it seemed to me that for the President of the United States, on a solemn occasion, to publicly offer a blank check that he knows is going to bounce, was pretty offensive.

Still, it would have been nice to think that, on the margin, the speech represented a genuine decision to give a little less support to the people FDR called “our sonsofbitches.”

The war against Islamofascism is being played for lower stakes than the Cold War or World War II, so we can afford to be a little bit less cynical in our choice of means. Moreover, re-establishing ourselves as the global beacon of democracy might actually be a strategically sound move. Not only is it helpful to actually stand for something when you’re trying to get other people to help you, but cynicism exacts its own price. It’s easy to forget how many “realistic” policies, from backing the Shah in Iran and losing to backing the mujaheddin against the Russians in Afghanistan and winning, turned out sour.

[There is still much wisdom in the Norse myth JFK liked to tell: how Odin knew, by his magic, that the victory of the Aesir at the Gotterdammerung depended on his learning a secret known only to a certain witch. When the witch demanded his right eye as the price of the secret, he plucked it out and laid it on the table: only to be told that the secret of victory was “Watch with both eyes.”]

Anyway, that’s all obsolete now. The ink was barely dry on Friday’s newspapers before Bush sent one of those dreaded “senior officials” to tell the New York Times, “Never mind.” None of our tyrannical buddies need worry. The plan to hold (men-only) elections for local councils in Saudi Arabia means that Saudi Arabia is making progress toward democracy. The same goes for Pakistan, where a promise by Musharraf, who has already broken more promises than he can count, to hold elections two years from now, is plenty good enough. Freedom is coming, as an “end state,” said the official, though it might take “generations to achieve.”

Now I don’t pretend to know what to do about Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, where democracy could have disastrous consequences; as Wesley Clark remarked during the campaign, if Saudi Arabia held free elections, its new President would be Osama bin Laden.

But I’m heartily tired of being ruled by a man whose word isn’t worth the spit behind it.

Well, four years isn’t forever.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: