Thursday, August 28, 2008

Gaddis Looks at the Bush "Doctrine"

Ralph Luker called attention to Ending Tyranny: The Past and Future of an Idea by John Lewis Gaddis, and (after dissing Victor Davis Hansen) offered that this "may be the first attempt at a positive reappraisal of the Bush administration's legacy in foreign policy." And Ralph followed that up with, "Can you say the Stanford/Yale [Hansen/Gaddis] axis of hackery?"

Anyway, while I know I'm not a bona fide academic historian, I read the piece and I don't see the "hackery."

Gaddis' central goal is to analyze whether there really is a "Bush Doctrine" and whether or not, if it does exist, it will be a flash in the pan or long-lasting; perhaps picked-up by succeeding generations (if not immediately). He surveys the successes and failures of other presidential "doctrines" in an attempt to place Bush's in context. Here's an (extended) example of the sort of analysis Gaddis is trying to provide:
The end of the Cold War left the United States in a position of dominance unrivaled since the days of the Roman Empire. Maintaining humility under such circumstances would have demanded the self-discipline of a saint—and the Americans, like the Romans, have never been particularly saintly. So all at once their efforts to encourage democracy, which had come across during the Cold War as constraining the power of dictators, now looked like an effort to concentrate power in their own hands.


And after... September 11, 2001, a wounded nation that was still the most powerful nation began insisting that its future security required the expansion of democracy everywhere. No wonder this frightened people elsewhere, even those also frightened by terrorism.

President Bush reflected this “one size fits all” mentality when he called for “the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.” That sounded like knowing what was best for the world. But then he added: “with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” That sounded like liberating people so that they could decide what was best for them; it was language of which the Founding Fathers, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln and Isaiah Berlin might have approved. So the President managed to compress, into a single sentence, the concepts of both positive and negative liberty.

This may have been a triumph for succinct speech writing, but it was not one for philosophical coherence. Promoting democracy, for the reasons I’ve mentioned, offers no guarantee of ending tyranny, just as ending tyranny offers no guarantee that the newly liberated will choose democracy. Telling people simultaneously that we know best and that they know best is likely to confuse them as well as us. But what if we were to read the President’s sentence as a political rather than a philosophical statement, as a way of respecting the recent past while shifting priorities for the future? A presidential speech, after all, cannot simply dismiss what has gone before, even as it suggests where we should now be going.

If the Bush Doctrine was meant in that sense—if ending tyranny is now to be the objective of the United States in world affairs—then this would amount to a course correction away from the 20th-century idea of promoting democracy as a solution for all the world’s problems, and back toward an older concept of seeking to liberate people so they can solve their own problems. It could be a navigational beacon for the future that reflects more accurately where we started and who we’ve been.

He continues on and asks many questions. He concludes by leaving options open:
President Bush may have proclaimed a doctrine for the 21st century comparable to the Monroe Doctrine in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and to the Truman Doctrine during the Cold War. Only historians not yet born will be able to say for sure. Even that possibility, however, should earn Bush’s memorable sentence greater scrutiny than it has so far received. For it raises an issue that future administrations—whether those of Obama, McCain or their successors—are going to have to resolve: If the goal of the United States is to be “ending tyranny in our world”, then is encouraging “the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture” the best way to go about it?

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