Unsafe for Democracy

Andrew J. Bacevich teaches international relations at Boston University and is the author of "The New American Militarism," forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

In justifying the exercise of U.S. power, all modern presidents read off the same script. The United States stands for liberty. It champions democracy. It aids the oppressed and succors the afflicted. Alone among history’s great powers, the U.S. acts on behalf of the “inalienable rights” that form the birthright of all humankind.

That script was the handiwork of Woodrow Wilson. When it comes to describing this nation’s purpose, each of the dominant political figures of our own day -- Ronald Reagan no less than John F. Kennedy, George W. Bush no less than Bill Clinton -- has embraced Wilson’s legacy. Doing so has served these presidents well, enabling them to exercise extraordinary latitude in the conduct of policy while insulating them from accountability for failure.

In practice, however, ideals inform U.S. policy precisely to the extent that they happen to coincide with more tangible considerations. As a consequence, adherence to Wilsonian principles becomes highly selective: In the 1990s, Clinton called armed intervention to halt ethnic cleansing in the Balkans a moral imperative, yet averted his eyes from the Rwandan genocide; today, Bush adamantly insists that preventive war to liberate oppressed Iraqis was “the right thing to do,” even as his administration dithers in the face of the genocide unfolding in the Darfur region of Sudan. Unfortunately for the doomed Tutsis in Rwanda, U.S. interests in the Great Lakes region of sub-Saharan Africa fell somewhat short of those in Europe. And too bad also for the Sudanese: Their country does not sit astride an ocean of oil.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans have a monopoly on this hypocrisy. Nor, for that matter, is it peculiarly American. In Paris and Berlin just as in Washington, politicians gild their speeches with claims of altruism and good intentions. But at least the French and the Germans appear to recognize such expressions of high-mindedness for what they are: a benign ritual lending dignity to an otherwise brutal business in which the strong inevitably do as they will and the weak as they must.


From time to time in U.S. history, however, expediency camouflaged by expressions of idealism morphs into something considerably more problematic. This occurred in 1917 when Wilson intervened in Europe to end war itself and make the world safe for democracy. It occurred again after 9/11.

Having deeply internalized the ambitions and the prerogatives that Wilson articulated nearly a century ago, leading members of the Bush administration profess certainty that history has charged the United States with ensuring the universal triumph of freedom and democracy. Bush himself, perhaps the truest of Wilson’s disciples, has gone even further, declaring the United States’ purpose is to eliminate evil itself.

This great mission empowers Bush and his lieutenants to undertake their vast project aimed at remaking the Middle East. At the same time, it exempts them from the moral ambiguity inherent in the exercise of power. It exempts them from rules to which others must adhere. In the pursuit of exalted ends, the use of questionable means becomes permissible.

Indeed, to see the world as a contest pitting good against evil is to move at least halfway down the slippery slope of Abu Ghraib. It allows U.S. officials to shrug off the estimated 100,000 Iraqi civilian lives lost since last year’s invasion. Yet even as the rest of the world sees the U.S. incursion into Iraq as a reckless imperial adventure gone badly awry, the political classes here at home persist in describing it as an expression of American benevolence. Even John F. Kerry, in mounting his critique of the war, complained only of “mismanagement,” thereby tacitly endorsing the administration’s basic worldview.

Safely reelected, President Bush vows to press on. He has already restated his commitment to securing “the freedom of all mankind.” He has seized the opportunity to refresh the camouflage cloaking the actual enterprise to which he has committed the U.S. He thereby prevents the American people from gauging the costs entailed by that enterprise and the risks that it involves.

Through incessant repetition, words like “freedom” and “democracy” have become like an old coin, worn so thin as to defy even the most conscientious effort to distinguish between the real and the counterfeit.

But the course on which we have embarked since 9/11 -- and that has landed us in Iraq -- is not a true one. It is unwise, unsustainable and doomed to fail. How regrettable that in the presidential contest just concluded we have squandered the opportunity to discover that.