The Idealist in the Bluebonnets
What Bush's meeting with the Saudi ruler really means.
Monday's chummy meeting between President Bush and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah—replete with a hand-holding stroll through the Crawford Ranch bluebonnets—should splash some cold water on the dreamy gaze that has transfixed too many faces this season.
It's a natural temptation to exaggerate the impact of tumultuous events—to see a hopeful advance as a cosmic leap, an unexpected twist as the harbinger of a new direction in the course of human events. The armistice of 1918 moved Woodrow Wilson to declare "an end to all wars." The West's triumph over communism excited Francis Fukuyama into believing we'd reached "the end of history." And this winter's drama in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Ukraine inspired George W. Bush to proclaim that American interests and American ideals are no longer at odds and, in fact, are identical—that, in other words, the dilemmas which have racked statesmen across the span of American history are now resolved.
But then Crown Prince Abdullah came to visit.
Bush invited the Crown Prince to Crawford—the highest token of honor and friendship that this president bestows on foreign leaders—for one basic reason: to see if the royal family can do something to lower oil prices. It is doubtful, under the circumstances, that the president made a fuss over Saudi Arabia's execrable human-rights record or its snail's-pace crawl (if that) toward democracy.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice likes to go around the world proclaiming that global freedom is "the organizing principle of the 21st century" and that the United States' relations with a country will be shaped above all by that country's commitment to freedom.
Yet the United States' continued courtship of Saudi Arabia reveals that, in many realms, our interests and ideals still collide. Dilemmas still impose themselves. We must make fundamental choices, and sometimes we will choose pragmatism (and oil).
Bush's proclamation, recited in his Inaugural Address last January, took the form of a syllogism: Violence and terrorism are the product of tyranny and resentment; spreading freedom will reduce tyranny and resentment, and will thus also reduce violence and terrorism; therefore, advancing our ideals of freedom will also advance our interests of security—or, as the president put it: "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one."
Even at the time, this logic seemed riddled with holes. History, after all, is rife with movements of violence and terror taking hold in free societies (the Red Brigades in Italy, the IRA in Ireland, and the Nazis in Weimar Germany). And the spread of freedom isn't necessarily a benign force from America's viewpoint. If the masses suddenly gained freedom in Pakistan, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia (or even, perhaps, in Lebanon, Iran, or Iraq), their new democratically elected regimes might be hostile toward U.S. interests and security.
Which leads us back to the stroll through those bluebonnets. Regardless of what Bush really thinks about the Saudi royal family and its undemocratic ways, he—like any other modern American president—has a strong interest in assuring access to oil, preferably at lower prices. Similarly, a president might like China's rulers to treat dissidents more humanely, but he really wants China to keep buying dollars and floating the U.S. deficit. (Bush's commitment to freedom might be taken more seriously if he took action to promote oil conservation, and cut the deficit, in order to make us less beholden to the Saudis and Chinese.) These conflicting desires are nothing new. During the Cold War, presidents tried to undercut communism and to pressure the Kremlin to ease emigration; but they tried even harder to avoid World War III.
The point is not that realpolitik always trumps values. But there usually is a tension between the two. Sometimes a nation can afford to choose the latter; sometimes it can't; sometimes a balance can be managed; sometimes the two coincide. But it's a delusion—a defiance of everything Condi Rice learned in graduate school—to pretend they're one and the same.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of President Bush and Prince Abdullah by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.