The following article appears in The Times today.
WRITING in The Sunday Times this week, Michael Portillo urged Americans to vote Democrat. Other Tory MPs, including Alan Duncan, the party’s former foreign affairs spokesman, have expressed similar views.
I recognise the ideological consistency of Conservative critics of the current US Administration. I have voted Labour for more than 20 years; I even did so under Michael Foot’s disastrous leadership in 1983. I am pro-European and believe in “foreign policy with an ethical dimension”. The American presidential contender who most closely represents my ideals is George W. Bush, whose re-election I hope for.
Liberal internationalism envisages an order founded on constitutional democratic principles. It stands, as Woodrow Wilson declared in 1917, “for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience”. It advocates maintaining peace through collective security and non-discriminatory trade.
John Kerry is no inheritor of this tradition. His foreign policy reveals a conservative pessimism about the limits of political action (a stance that will be familiar to Michael Portillo from his service in a Government that declined to confront Serb aggression against Bosnia). Kerry’s distaste for American exceptionalism runs deep. Lawrence Kaplan recently recorded in the American political journal The New Republic that when, in 1997, President Clinton described the United States as the “indispensable nation”, Kerry retorted, “Why are we adopting such an arrogant, obnoxious tone?”
Senator Kerry’s line of attack against the Administration’s foreign policy is misconceived. Sceptical of the malleability of the international order, it echoes the traditional conservative incantation against “nation-building”. But America is not trying to build nations, which take generations to evolve. It has the more limited aim of replacing failed states and tyrannies with institutional arrangements that protect people from capricious rule and violence.
No more facile remark has been uttered about the Iraq war than John Kerry’s lament that it diverted the focus of the War on Terror. Overthrowing Baathist totalitarianism was a humanitarian cause, but it also buttressed Western security. Recent academic research suggests that — contrary to numerous confident episcopal assertions — the “root cause” of terrorism is not poverty but political repression. Societies where dissent is confined to religious absolutism are incubators of violent anti-Western fanaticism. The authors of one study, the Princeton economist Alan B. Krueger and Jitka Maleckova of Charles University in Prague, maintain that terrorism, rather than being generated by poverty or lack of education, may be “more accurately viewed as a response to political conditions and longstanding feelings of indignity and frustration that have little to do with economic circumstances.”
Postwar American foreign policy has been consistently compromised by tactical alliances with authoritarian regimes. These were a moral failure but also a strategic blunder — in Vietnam, Latin America, or the notorious tilt to Saddam in the Iran-Iraq War. President Bush, by contrast, maintains that the spread of liberty, not the balance of power among states, is the best assurance for Western security. It’s a premise that explains his contempt for the duplicitous autocrat Yassir Arafat while — a fact lost on many of Bush’s European critics — aiming explicitly for a Palestinian state.
This approach is plausible. A state that lies to its own people (recall the unanimous popular votes for Saddam in Iraqi plebiscites) is unlikely to be open and trustworthy on the international stage. In a world where Islamist terrorists seek the destruction of Western civilisation, and where means for accomplishing that end are numerous and dispersed, our values and interests coincide in promoting democracy internationally.
President Bush’s foreign policy is liberal in conception but it differs from Wilsonianism in execution. That ought to be the Democrats’ line of attack. Woodrow Wilson believed in fostering democracy through international institutions. By contrast, President Bush is dismissive of the United Nations after its prolonged failure to implement its own Security Council resolutions on Iraq. He has a point, but his Administration has pursued it with unseemly slights against nations whose assistance is needed given the lamentable failure of postwar planning for Iraq.
Similarly, the US has a reasonable case on both Kyoto and the International Criminal Court, but has undermined it with a determined exacerbation of diplomatic frictions. Then there is Abu Ghraib. Michael Portillo maintains: “For America to brush away its recent disgraces, the electorate will have to bin this Administration.”
Yet that is frivolous reasoning. The tortures and deaths in US custody require expiation, not just symbolically but practically, to the people of Iraq, in the form of due process and the rule of law. Those values, so traduced by American jailers, are exemplified in the arraignment before an Iraqi court of a despot whose regime was founded on torture and killing. Were it not for President Bush, and had there been a President Gore, Saddam would still be in power.
Democrats had the chance to avoid the type of embittered and personalised partisanship that characterised Republican attacks on President Clinton’s Kosovo intervention. They could have offered a thoughtful critique of the flawed execution of Bush’s foreign policy. Instead Kerry ululates about the President’s perfidy in exaggerating Saddam’s military threat. But European liberals should have scant reason to wish for this obscurantist reactionary Democrat in the White House.