Is Bush following in the footsteps of Lincoln, Wilson?

December 09, 2003|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON - Anyone who has listened to President Bush's recent speeches about the need to promote democracy in the Arab-Muslim world can't help but walk away both impressed and dubious - impressed because promoting democracy in the Arab world is something no president before has advocated with Mr. Bush's vigor, and dubious because this sort of nation-building is precisely what Mr. Bush spurned throughout his campaign.

Where did Mr. Bush's passion for making the Arab world safe for democracy come from?

Though the president mentioned this theme before the war, it was not something he stressed with the public, Congress or the United Nations in justifying an Iraq invasion. Rather, he relied primarily on the urgent need to pre-emptively strip Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.

A cynic might say that Mr. Bush was always interested only in stripping Iraq of its WMD. But with no WMD having been unearthed thus far in Iraq, and with the costs of the war in lives and dollars soaring, the president felt he needed a new rationale. And so he focused on the democratization argument.

But there is another explanation, one that is not incompatible with the first but is less overtly cynical. It is a story about war and events and how they can transform a president.

"It often happens," argues Harvard political theorist Michael Sandel, "that presidents, under the pressure of events, especially during war, find themselves needing to articulate new and more persuasive rationales for their policies - especially when great sacrifices are involved. This happened to Lincoln during the Civil War. At the outset, the purpose of the Civil War for Lincoln was to oppose secession and preserve the Union. It was really only after the battle at Gettysburg that Lincoln articulated a larger purpose for the Civil War - freedom and the elimination of slavery."

As Lincoln insisted in his Gettysburg Address, "We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom."

In Lincoln's case, the rationale for the war shifted not because he couldn't find any WMD in Dixie, but rather, argues Mr. Sandel, "because of the enormity of the sacrifice that the war was requiring. It no longer made moral sense that this great sacrifice could just be about keeping these states together, could just be about a political structure. It had to be about a bigger purpose, and that was freedom and equality."

Woodrow Wilson went through a similar transformation, notes Mr. Sandel. He campaigned for re-election in 1916 boasting of having kept the country out of Europe's messy war. But by April 2, 1917, Mr. Wilson was standing before a joint session of Congress, seeking a declaration of war against Germany and insisting that the world "must be made safe for democracy."

The irony, notes Mr. Sandel, is that Mr. Bush's decision to emphasize the democracy rationale puts him in the company of Mr. Wilson, the president who made liberal internationalism the core of his foreign policy.

"Indeed," he adds, "President Bush, who campaigned for the presidency as an ardent realist, scorning nation-building and idealism in foreign policy, is now quoting President Wilson and speaking about the need to make the Middle East safe for democracy. It shows how the burden of the office and the power of events can transform presidents."

Personally, I'm partial to Mr. Bush's new emphasis on the freedom and democracy argument, which for me was the only compelling rationale for the Iraq war.

The question is how deeply Mr. Bush has internalized this democracy agenda, which is going to be a long, costly enterprise, and to what extent he can persuade Americans to stick with it. If you listen to him speak about it, it seems heartfelt, almost a religious conviction.

But the fact is, Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address himself. Mr. Bush's democracy speeches were written for him. Only the future will tell us whether his attachment to this issue is the product of epiphany or expediency - or both.

In my Dec. 2 column, I wrote about standing on a sidewalk in London and watching with dismay the protest parade go by - focused entirely on Tony Blair and George W. Bush, with no signs or chants mentioning the recent bombing in Istanbul. Readers wrote that at the public rally following the march, some speakers did decry the events in Turkey. I'm glad to hear it.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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