January 22, 2005

Column 2005-1-22 Commentary: Fantasy and Reality

The only possible response this Brooks column can provoke is hysterical laughter. Well, that may be an exaggeration: it is possible that a reader might just laugh, without actually going into hysterics. Brooks honestly expects us to believe that Bush's inaugural speech is going to cause a sea change in U.S. foreign policy. Now that Bush has declared, in a speech, that freedom is America's calling, and we should all fight tyranny just as hard as we can, we are immediately going to start putting pressure on every dictator in the world to reform. Most-favored-nation trade status for China? Gone. Foreign aid to Egypt? No more. Bush is going to stop being nice to Vladimir Putin, dump Pervez Musharraf, and kick Uzebekistan out of the coalition of the willing. I may be more cynical than Brooks is about American foreign policy, but it would take extreme naivete (or, of course, extreme idiocy) to believe that Bush's speech actually heralds any significant changes.

"His words will be thrown back at him and future presidents", Brooks says. First of all, I can think of only three inaugural addresses that are actually still remembered: Lincoln's two, and JFK's. The chances of this one being added to this list are pretty slim. Second of all, it's not as if Bush is the first significant American, or for that matter the first President, to speak about spreading freedom. Ronald Reagan, for instance, talked about spreading freedom a lot: see, for instance, this speech, from 1982. Did this stop him from supporting pro-U.S. dictators? Not at all. In fact, one might argue that this 1982 speech had no effect on U.S. foreign policy outside of its relations to the U.S.S.R. Similarly, Bush's speech is unlikely to have any effect on foreign policy other than providing ongoing justifications for anything Bush happens to feel the need to do in the war on terror. At any rate, that's what a senior administration official says: Daily Kos has the story. It's a good thing that Brooks thought to include a sentence about how Bush will not live up to his own standard.

This pretty much demolishes Brooks's column, but let us examine a few of the concrete consequences he claims anyway, because otherwise my commentary will be way too short. First, he says that when Bush visits China, he will not be able to ignore the political prisoners there. Perhaps so. Perhaps Bush will mention them. Briefly. Before going on to more important subjects, like the billions of dollars American companies have invested in China, and the fact that China is playing a large role in subsidizing the U.S.'s debt. Sure, it's not entirely in China's interest to decide that they're going to stop subsidizing the debt and start selling off treasury bonds, but then again, it's not as if the rulers of China are accountable to anybody. If the rulers of China are unhappy about the way Bush is treating them, they could probably cause a serious depression in the U.S, and I imagine that Bush is more worried about this possibility than about the sufferings of some political prisoners, horrible though they may be.

In fact, Brooks states the Bush will never be able to have warm relations with dictators, because he has said no relations with tyrants can be successful. I guess those family friends from the House of Saud are going to have to stop coming around. Or maybe some sort of grandfather clause can be put together to allow Bush to keep hanging out with them. And I bet Pervez Musharraf is going to be disappointed to hear that his relations with Bush will never be warm. For this, he went through two assassination attempts by Islamic fundamentalists? This might lead him to think that he perhaps he should be listening to those guys from the ISI who keep telling him that Osama Bin Laden isn't such a bad guy if you get to know him.

Brooks says, with a straight face: "It will be harder for the U.S. government to do what we did to Latin Americans for so many decades -- support strongmen . . . because they happen to be our strongmen." First of all, as noted above, Reagan was a big guy for spreading freedom, and also a big fan of supporting Latin American strongmen. Secondly, Bush has already tried to incite a coup in Venezuela against a democratically elected but anti-American president, Hugo Chavez. In the old days, it would have been because Chavez had gotten too close to the U.S.S.R.: in this brave new world of ours, Bush was worried about Venezuela's oil. The result, however, was the same.

It will also be harder, Brooks says, to "cozy up to Arab dictators because they can supposedly help us in the war on terror." And allowing them to be overthrown and replaced with fundamentalist Islamic theocracies helps the war on terror how? Anyway, we've been spending most of our time cozying up to Asian dictators to help us win the war on terror, such as Karimov, in Uzbekistan, and Musharraf. Incidentally, here's a piece of trivia for you: on the eve of the Iraq war, there did exist a dictator with WMD's, ties to Islamic terrorists, and possibly even links to 9/11 (there were certainly very strong links to the Taliban). That dictator was Pervez Musharraf. So, naturally, we invaded Iraq. Anyway, Brooks doesn't eliminate the possibility of cozying up to Arab dictators for their oil, so we don't even have to start figuring out who can be included under the grandfather clause.

Finally, Brooks claims that this speech of Bush's will help military morale. Well, this may be so. It could probably use some help. What is interesting is that he then lists some people who have articulated "the core ideals of this country": Jefferson, Walt Whitman, Lincoln, FDR, Truman, JFK, Reagan, and Bush. Yes, you read that correctly: Walt Whitman. Now, I will freely admit to an unfamiliarity with Walt Whitman's oeuvre, much less his life and times, but I'm pretty certain on one point: Whitman was never President of the United States. And frankly, when one thinks of people who have spoken of the core ideals of the U.S.A., Whitman's is not a name that leaps to mind.

There is one reasonable explanation for the inclusion of Whitman in this list that I can think of. It could be a subtle signal that the NYT has actually gotten rid of Brooks, and has replaced him with an extremely clever Brooks parodist. That would actually make sense. After all, no one could really be stupid enough to write this column and naive enough to believe it. But then again, I wouldn't have thought that anybody would be stupid enough to hire David Brooks as a columnist and naive enough to believe that he would write good columns either.