HOW has it happened that the Left of politics across the world has ended up opposing a foreign policy philosophy of spreading democracy in favour of supporting the traditional conservative agenda of stability, sovereignty and the status quo? Because that is what the Left is doing in its hostile reaction to George W. Bush’s second inaugural address.
It is entirely understandable that the Left is viscerally anti-Bush. His political strategy is not based on the democratic approach of seeking the middle ground, but on sharpening differences and divisions, of defaming and intimidating those who do not support him as appeasers, immoral and weak. His and his cabinet officers’ contemptuous treatment of allies and the international institutional framework could not be better demonstrated than by his nomination of John Bolton as US ambassador to the UN. I have had direct experience of how Bolton works. He believes that when the US says “jump”, others should ask “how high?” He tolerates nothing else.
But there’s something much deeper at work here than the Left’s dislike of Bush. It is something that has bedevilled the Left since the 1960s.
Bush said in his second inaugural address: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
This is resonant of John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address in 1961, when he said: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Kennedy’s words inspired the world. It particularly inspired those of us on the progressive side of politics. But those words turned sour because they presaged the US drive deeper into Vietnam. And for most members of the Left, Vietnam is the seminal personal and political rite of passage. Vietnam destroyed a Democrat president. It brought down a Republican president. It discredited the moral and political leadership of the US. Now when the trumpet sounds, the Left’s instinctive reaction is to cry “No, not another Vietnam”.
And so it has been over Iraq. The Left sees it as a Vietnam-style quagmire, a parcel of lies, leading once again to defeat. But the military, geostrategic and political terms of engagement in Iraq are different to those of Vietnam. The most profound difference rests on the issue of democracy. For 15 years the Americans ran the South Vietnamese political system; the elections held were dubious and led to regimes without legitimacy.
In sharp contrast, Iraq’s elections were for real. They are considered legitimate by the world because they are legitimate to Iraqis themselves, who voted in droves. A two-month delay in putting together a new government, far from being a negative, is a positive because those months were devoted to what democracy does best – political accommodation, power sharing, consensus building.
Now the Iraqis have a Kurd as President, a Sunni and a Shia as vice-presidents, a Sunni as Speaker and a Shia as Prime Minister. Negotiations for the final constitution will also require accommodation, compromise and broad support. Nothing remotely like this ever happened in Vietnam.
The key thing for those on the Left to understand is that intense dislike of Bush and echoes of Vietnam do not make a foreign policy. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Bolton - they too will pass. What will go on is the great human desire to be free, which should be at the core of our foreign policy. The great danger for the Left is that its Vietnam and Bush obsessions may mean that it will end up on the wrong side of history.