George W. Bush, liberal.

George W. Bush, liberal.

George W. Bush, liberal.

Politics and policy.
Sept. 21 2004 6:13 PM

Bush the Liberal

The nobility and folly of democratizing Iraq.

I admit it. I have a soft spot for President Bush.

I love it when he goes to the United Nations—as he did two years ago and again today—and tells those lazy cynics to get off their duffs. They spend their days congratulating each other, passing toothless resolutions, and giving lip service to tired pet issues. Bush is just what they need. He pokes them in the ribs. He points out that scofflaws are treating them like a joke. He tells them to enforce their threats, or he'll do it for them. He preaches freedom and democracy. He vows to serve others, no matter who else joins in the cause. He refuses to back down, no matter what the price.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Unfortunately for Bush, it's the liberal in me who loves these things. And it's the conservative—in me and other Americans—who's turning away.

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This is what liberals do: They coerce or cajole the fortunate to serve the less fortunate. They spend American lives and money to serve causes beyond our national interest. It's what lured Presidents Kennedy and Johnson into Vietnam. It's what conservatives hated about President Clinton's war in Kosovo.

Bush didn't plan Iraq as an altruistic war. He thought Saddam Hussein posed a grave threat to the United States. He thought there were weapons of mass destruction. He still thinks Saddam was al-Qaida's buddy. It's the evidence that has undercut these arguments. So Bush has fallen back on arguments that used to be peripheral to his case: We liberated Iraqis from a brutal dictator. We're building a model of democracy in the Middle East.

It's inspiring stuff. But don't tell me Americans would have tolerated going to war for these reasons. We thought we were heading off another 9/11.

In today's speech, Bush tried to sell the world on collective law enforcement. "Every nation that wants peace will share the benefits of a freer world," he observed. "Eventually, there is no safe isolation from terror networks, or failed states that shelter them, or outlaw regimes, or weapons of mass destruction. Eventually, there is no safety in looking away, seeking the quiet life by ignoring the struggles and oppression of others."

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True, every nation benefits. But not every nation has to share the cost. The shrewdest strategy, from the selfish standpoint of France or Turkey, is to let America do the work.

This is what happened in Iraq. Saddam "agreed in 1991, as a condition of a cease-fire, to fully comply with all Security Council resolutions—then ignored more than a decade of those resolutions," Bush recalled. "Finally, the Security Council promised serious consequences for his defiance. … And so a coalition of nations enforced the just demands of the world."

"Coalition" is Bush's euphemism for the United States. As John Kerry pointed out yesterday, it's our military that has supplied 90 percent of the troops and sustained 90 percent of the casualties. It's our $200 billion that has funded the war and the occupation. Bush didn't think about these things. Neither did I. Like many other Americans, I asked whether the enforcement of Security Council resolutions defied by Saddam was our unilateral right. I neglected to ask whether it was our unilateral responsibility.

One thousand American lives, $200 billion, and zero WMD stockpiles later, I'm asking. So are many others. So is Kerry. "We must make Iraq the world's responsibility," he said yesterday. Not the world's right. The world's responsibility.

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Bush wants you to think that he's the America-first guy, and Kerry is the utopian internationalist. But take a closer look. Yesterday, Kerry asked, "Is [Bush] really saying to America that if we know there was no imminent threat, no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to al-Qaida, the United States should have invaded Iraq? My answer: resoundingly, no, because a commander in chief's first responsibility is to make a wise and responsible decision to keep America safe."

Notice the references: to America. Should the United States invade. Keep America safe.

Last night, Bush shot back, "It's hard to imagine a candidate running for president prefers the stability of a dictatorship to the hope and security of democracy. If I might, I'd like to read a quote [Kerry] said last December: 'Those who doubted whether Iraq or the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein, and those who believe we are not safer with his capture don't have the judgment to be president. … ' I couldn't have put it better."

See the difference? Iraq and the world are better off with Saddam gone. Bush is mistaken: It isn't hard to imagine that a candidate for president would prefer stability abroad to democracy. We're talking about the presidency of the United States, not the world. What's hard to imagine is that the candidate who prefers stability is the so-called liberal and the candidate who prefers democracy and "hope" is the so-called conservative.

Count the candidates' buzzwords. The word "burden" appeared five times in Kerry's speech yesterday. The words "idealism" and "ideals" appear six times in Bush's speech today.

"Coalition forces now serving in Iraq are confronting the terrorists and foreign fighters so peaceful nations around the world will never have to face them," Bush effused this morning. He thanked U.N. officials for their "selfless" assistance and concluded, "The advance of freedom always carries a cost, paid by the bravest among us."

So much selflessness, so much bravery, so much cost—not for our benefit, but for all those "peaceful nations" that won't lift a finger to enforce the resolutions of their own United Nations. As a liberal, I admire it. As a conservative, I wonder how it looks to the guy in Ohio who can't pay his bills.