Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Well-Meaning Leftist of the Week

This Week: George Bush

A persistent misunderstanding that has characterized American foreign policy throughout the twentieth century is the belief that every nation in the world deserves "self-determination," and a democratically-elected government. This misunderstanding has, historically, been responsible for some very serious tragedies.

Woodrow Wilson's great battle for self-determination in Europe resulted in the disintegration of one of the more stable, civil liberty-loving empires in the world, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Few historians debate that the power vacuum created by this break-up is what allowed Hitler to come to power and dominate Central European politics throughout the Thirties.

Franklin D. Roosevelt suffered under a similar Wilsonian myopia. His refusal to recognize Charles de Gaulle as a legal representative of the French resistance (because he was not democratically elected) deeply offended those French who were stalwartly resisting in metropolitan France, and caused a number of costly misunderstandings in the occupation of North Africa. Even when evidence came pouring in that de Gaulle was wildly popular in France, Roosevelt didn't acknowledge his political status, driving a deep rift between de Gaulle and the Americans that would continue in de Gaulle's postwar policies.

I make no judgment on the Iraq war here, except to say that President Bush's simplistic, Wilsonian belief that Americans need to "make the world safe for democracy" ignores the failures of Wilson and FDR and denies that democracy is itself a dangerous idea, and can only govern those who, to a certain extent, already govern themselves. People who think that throwing your shoe at a political leader is an acceptable, even laudable, way for a professional reporter to express disapproval are not ready to govern themselves. People who think that blowing up innocents is another acceptable way to express disapproval are similarly unready for democracy. As I've said before, democracy cannot work without its "liberal" (original etymology) underpinnings: when we lose an election in America, we gather up our armies, and we "generously" go on home. In this sense, democracy is only for tolerant, self-controlled, good losers.

For his near-sighted optimism in the ability of American democracy to be exported all willy-nilly, George Bush earns his place as the "Well-Meaning Leftist of the Week" (runners-up: Woodrow Wilson and FDR).


  1. Not to mention that if setting up democracy is to be our goal, we have alot of work ahead of - setting up democracies throughout the middle east and Africa would take decades - possibly centuries of war.

    And I say this as one who believes that the invasion of Iraq was justified.

  2. For his near-sighted optimism in the ability of American democracy to be exported all willy-nilly

    From my view, the reason it cannot be exported is that American democracy sprung from a moral people.