James M. Lindsay, the Council’s director of studies, says the ambitious agenda contained in President Bush’s inauguration speech will be hard to implement. “Creating democracy is a very difficult task,” Lindsay says. “People spend their lives studying why democracy takes place in some places but not in others. There is no simple recipe. If only it were otherwise.” Lindsay, a long-time student of the intersection of domestic politics and foreign policy, notes that the address was almost totally devoted to foreign policy, in contrast to Bush’s first inauguration speech four years ago. “That obviously reflects the major changes brought about by September 11,” he says.
A Council vice president who holds the Maurice R. Greenberg chair, Lindsay was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of cfr.org, on January 20, 2005.
What was your overall impression of the speech?
I’ll leave it to the literary critics to give the president a grade for his delivery. What I was most impressed by was how forceful the speech was and how focused it was on foreign policy. This is a remarkable turnaround from four years ago, when the president’s first inaugural address dealt at great length with domestic policy. The 2005 inaugural address was all about foreign policy and very little about domestic policy, despite all the talk in recent weeks of social security, tax reform, tort reform, and the like. That obviously reflects the major changes brought about by September 11.
He talked a great deal about liberty, freedom, and helping the oppressed. On the other hand, he said they wouldn’t necessarily be imposed on others. What’s the message you would get if you were a foreigner?
It is clear the president has laid down what we might call the second “Bush Doctrine”--that it is America’s policy to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture. That’s a pretty broad goal to lay down for American foreign policy. There is nothing in the speech, really, on how to achieve that goal.
In that sense, his speech was all about aspirations and not about strategy. And as you point out, the president did note that he wasn’t saying all this had to be done by force. What was also missing in the speech was any recognition of trade-offs that are inevitably raised by the pursuit of other goals besides freedom. I think you are likely to see, as part of the reactions outside of the United States, accusations of hypocrisy on the part of the Bush administration, that it has this very lofty rhetoric about the forces of freedom and then works with people like General [Pervez] Musharraf in Pakistan or the leaders of Uzbekistan or has a close relationship with President [Hosni] Mubarak [of Egypt] or the royal family in Saudi Arabia. That’s the problem that this administration and previous American administrations have had in talking about promoting democracy or promoting freedom and then working closely with the very sorts of regimes that we claim to oppose.
If you’re President Mubarak and you have just read the speech, should you worry about it?
I don’t know how President Mubarak would read it, but I would imagine most seasoned politicians would say at the end of the day: “What matters is what you do, not what you say.” On that score, they would be paying close attention to what the administration does in the weeks and months to come. The reality in the past several years is that the United States, despite talk about freedom, has maintained very close relations with governments that are not democratic and don’t provide freedom to their people. That’s because we’re trying to achieve other goals; that’s going to be a problem that will dog the president. It’s going to be one of the main counterarguments in the arsenal of groups like al Qaeda. As they try to mobilize forces behind them, [they will argue] that Bush says he’s for democracy, “yet look at all these people he lines up with.” Hence, they would say, “Bush policy is not about what the president says it’s about, namely freedom; it’s about a lot of other things, like American domination and conquest.”
Is the speech just a nicer way of saying the president is against the “axis of evil?” If you’re in North Korea and in Iran, would you be particularly concerned?
I don’t see why the rulers in Tehran or Pyongyang would be more concerned after this inaugural address than before. They would argue that they heard this many times before, and it’s not lost on them that the United States would like to see them exit from this stage of history. But that takes us back to the practical matter of how do you do it at an acceptable cost. Clearly, the administration has learned in Iraq that, in solving one problem, you can create others. And by virtue of being in Iraq right now, it’s going to be difficult, although not impossible, to be engaged in military operations elsewhere, which goes back to the point you raised earlier. The president was very clear to say that the talk about spreading freedom doesn’t necessarily mean using military force to make that happen.
So, we can characterize the speech as a general strategic outline that lacks any tools to implement its goals?
I would describe it as an aspiration speech about what we would like foreign policy to be about. Talking about encouraging the forces of freedom is a way, which the president put quite nicely, of bringing together both our interests and our values. But, in keeping with the old saying “the devil’s in the details,” the real question here is: how do you bring about the continued advance of the forces of freedom? Do we have the right policies for doing so? And there’s also one interesting thing in the way that the president set up the issue, because the backdrop to this is the war on terrorism, particularly the war on al Qaeda and Islamic extremism.
The president had a line in which he said the best hope for peace in the world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. A very nice line. The real question, though, is: is it true? Is advancing freedom the key prescription for the problems we face? It’s a debatable proposition. In essence, that argument says: the real reason we have these problems is because of “them” and has very little to do with us. But if you talk to many people outside the United States, particularly in the Islamic world, what they would say is: “We don’t object to American values, we don’t object to democracy, what we object to is the policies your government pursues. It’s those policies which are fueling anti-Americanism in our country and our region.” This is a kind of alternative explanation for what is happening. If that argument is true or to the extent that it is true, the president’s prescription is not going to solve the problem. In fact, it could make it worse.
It’s often been said, if there were democracy in the Middle East, the United States would suffer because governments friendly to the United States would likely be voted out of power. Do you agree with that?
It is clear that, in a number of parts of the world, authoritarian governments choose to work with the United States because they believe it’s in their interest to do so. If those governments were overthrown and replaced by democratic governments, it’s likely we would find new governments less willing to work with us. Some might actually be bitterly hostile to us. That would be of no surprise. It wouldn’t even surprise many of the people who support the president’s policies and work for the administration. I think their argument is that, even if we have to endure five or 10 or 15 years of criticism, in the long run we’ll be better off to have more free governments.
I think the interesting thing about the president’s speech is the words he used throughout. Twenty-seven times he invoked the word “freedom,” 15 times he invoked the word “liberty,” and only once did he invoke the word “democracy.” They’re not all the same concepts. In some sense, liberty and freedom are negative. They’re about the absence of something, the absence of constraint, the absence of tyranny. Democracy is a positive concept. It presumes creating certain kinds of processes, institutions, norms, and behavior. What we learned in Iraq is that it can be very easy to remove the constraint or remove the dictator, but it can be extraordinarily difficult to produce democracy. Looking at the president’s speech, you seldom see a detailed argument about how the United States can best promote democracy.
I think that’s a real challenge. What we’re seeing in Iraq is that, even though the bad guys are removed, it doesn’t mean democracy will spontaneously take root, in part because it requires all people agreeing to certain types of behavior. And if significant portions of the population refuse to do so, it can make it very, very difficult. Which is why, as you look ahead to the elections in Iraq coming up, the tendency has been to treat them as the destination as opposed to just another marker along the road.
You said earlier that this is the second “Bush Doctrine.” What does that imply?
If you look back over the history of American foreign policy since the end of the Second World War, American presidents or, perhaps more accurately, scholars and analysts who follow presidents, have always wanted to label the major thrust of their foreign policies as a doctrine. We had the Truman Doctrine, for instance, which said the United States would support any country resisting subjugation by communists. We had the first Bush Doctrine, particularly right after September 11, which was the notion that the United States would punish terrorists and any country that harbored or supported them.
I referred to the president’s speech today as the second “Bush Doctrine” because it lays out, at least on a rhetorical level, what American foreign policy is supposed to be about. Presumably, it’s guiding the decisions made by the administration, not just at the 40,000-foot level of the Cabinet secretaries, but also down at the 500-foot level of the various office directors, Foreign Service officers, and the like. The question for any doctrine is the gap between the rhetoric and the reality. Historically, what presidents have found is that is it very easy to articulate a broad rule of thumb, a doctrine, but that, in practice, lots of other competing objectives, demands, constraints, and costs enter into the equation. It’s premature to judge how this second “Bush Doctrine” will work. I think it would be very difficult, in part because it is extraordinarily ambitious, because creating democracy is a very difficult task. People spend their lives studying why democracy takes place in some places but not in others. There is no simple recipe. If only it were otherwise.