Oh Say Can You See
Michael Ignatieff writes in the New York Times about a mission whose outcome is not yet known. It is the American mission to spread the Jeffersonian dream of freedom to the world. He asks two questions: first, whether any set of flawed human beings can set out upon a such a missionary enterprise without being guilty of self-righteousness; second, whether the Americans are willing to pay the high price for this endeavor. (Hat tip: MW)
John F. Kennedy echoed Jefferson when, in a speech in 1961, he said that the spread of freedom abroad was powered by ''the force of right and reason''; but, he went on, in a sober and pragmatic vein, ''reason does not always appeal to unreasonable men.'' The contrast between Kennedy and the current incumbent of the White House is striking. Until George W. Bush, no American president -- not even Franklin Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson -- actually risked his presidency on the premise that Jefferson might be right. But this gambler from Texas has bet his place in history on the proposition ... If democracy plants itself in Iraq and spreads throughout the Middle East, Bush will be remembered as a plain-speaking visionary. If Iraq fails, it will be his Vietnam, and nothing else will matter much about his time in office.
Although Ignatieff plainly wants to see freedom spread, one of the sources of his unease is the role of God, or something like it, in the missionary endeavor. How much better it would be, he seems to ask, if any claims to universality or transcendence could be kept out it. Then we could bring the Europeans and the Canadians in on it.
From the era of F.D.R. to the era of John Kennedy, liberal and progressive foreigners used to look to America for inspiration. ... For a complex set of reasons, American democracy has ceased to be the inspiration it was. This is partly because of the religious turn in American conservatism, which awakens incomprehension in the largely secular politics of America's democratic allies. ... Ask the Canadians why they aren't joining the American crusade to spread democracy, and you get this from their government's recent foreign-policy review: ''Canadians hold their values dear, but are not keen to see them imposed on others. This is not the Canadian way.'' One reason it is not the Canadian way is that when American presidents speak of liberty as God's plan for mankind, even God-fearing Canadians wonder when God began disclosing his plan to presidents. ...
Yet for all of that, Ignatieff recognizes the power of the idea that Liberals have ceded to the Conservatives. But he fails to ask himself what precisely it was about the Conservative embrace of the Jeffersonian proclamation that sets it apart from the Liberal acceptance at arms-length as exemplified by John Kennedy. He doesn't convincingly explain why Reagan should discover in liberty something which John Kennedy had missed; why George W. Bush should find in it something which Bill Clinton did not.
It was Reagan who began the realignment of American politics, making the Republicans into internationalist Jeffersonians ... Faced with the Republican embrace of Jeffersonian ambitions for America abroad, liberals chose retreat or scorn. Bill Clinton -- who took reluctant risks to defend freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo -- partly arrested this retreat, yet since his administration, the withdrawal of American liberalism from the defense and promotion of freedom overseas has been startling. The Michael Moore-style left conquered the Democratic Party's heart; now the view was that America's only guiding interest overseas was furthering the interests of Halliburton and Exxon. The relentless emphasis on the hidden role of oil makes the promotion of democracy seem like a devious cover or lame excuse. The unseen cost of this pseudo-Marxist realism is that it disconnected the Democratic Party from the patriotic idealism of the very electorate it sought to persuade.
One possibility is that Reagan and Bush possessed a faith in the universality of human liberty that Kennedy and Clinton did not. It was one thing to coldly deduce that China could be reached by sailing westward from Europe, but it took Columbus to stake one's fate on it. Ignatieff sees this, but cannot bring himself to admit it. Missionary endeavors require a kind of faith. A kind of action in advance of the result. The Canadians and Europeans would not come on those terms and so we should not be surprised that they have not come at all.
John Kerry's presidential campaign could not overcome liberal America's fatal incapacity to connect to the common faith of the American electorate in the Jeffersonian ideal. Instead he ran as the prudent, risk-avoiding realist in 2004 -- despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that he had fought in Vietnam. Kerry's caution was bred in the Mekong. The danger and death he encountered gave him some good reasons to prefer realism to idealism, and risk avoidance to hubris. Faced with a rival who proclaimed that freedom was not just America's gift to mankind but God's gift to the world, it was understandable that Kerry would seek to emphasize how complex reality was, how resistant to American purposes it might be and how high the price of American dreams could prove. As it turned out, the American electorate seemed to know only too well how high the price was in Iraq, and it still chose the gambler over the realist. In 2004, the Jefferson dream won decisively over American prudence.
Ignatieff's oddest choice of words is to characterize Kerry as a realist and George Bush as a gambler, as if there were any certainty to be derived from sitting back passively, as he accuses the Liberals of doing; as if there were any recklessness to warring on enemies who had warred on you. "The real truth about Iraq is that we just don't know -- yet -- whether the dream will do its work this time. This is the somber question that hangs unanswered as Americans approach this Fourth of July." But that's what freedom is: the ability to ask a question and not be afraid of the answer.