In January 2005, George W. Bush delivered what will surely go down as one of the most ambitious inaugural addresses in presidential history. He pledged the United States to "the ultimate goal of ending tyranny" in the world through the promotion of "democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture." In other words, he proposed the eradication of the most consistently recurring character in politics since its misty origins in prehistory, the dictator or ruler or strongman.
No small number of people thought this was perfectly crazy at the time. But what is perhaps more startling is how many people thought what Bush had to say was an aspiration worthy of a nation founded to vindicate the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Moreover, some, including me, went farther, viewing Bush's project favorably not just as the latest articulation of the longstanding American declaratory obsession with saving the world by example and deed, but as a plausible one in terms of policy, especially given the less-remarked sentence two paragraphs later, in which Bush described the task he set out as "the concentrated work of generations."
But there are, of course, serious questions here: What is a policy dedicated to "ending tyranny" supposed to look like? For that matter, is the best way to end tyranny really to promote "democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture," and, if so, how and on what timetable? And what about those pesky tyrants who have something of use to the United States, such as oil or information, or something the United States might fear, such as nuclear weapons? Do they get a pass, and, if so, for how long? And if years turn into decades and then generations, isn't such a policy more properly described as one of accommodation of tyrants when necessary?
And of course, now we have the problem of Iraq, a war that began for security reasons, turned into an attempt to create a democracy, and now seems primarily intended to avert civil war, genocide, or the triumph of a religiously inspired terrorist ideology. Kanan Makiya, a proponent of the war and once of the proposition that Iraq was ripe for democracy, described the pass we have reached at a gathering last week in Prague of current and former dissident promoters of liberalism and democracy from all over the world: Iraq, he said, is the "sword of Damocles" hanging over democracy promotion.
In the context of domestic politics, the Democratic rank and file, once sympathetic to such concerns as human rights and opposition to authoritarian governments, has now largely flipped, rededicating itself to the proposition of leaving well enough alone. When I told a fellow soccer dad, a smart, witty, and politically attuned Washington lawyer and unabashed partisan Democrat, that I was going to miss the team party because I was off to Prague for a conference on democracy promotion to which, ahem, Bush was going, he noted ruefully, "Sure, there are plenty more places we can screw up in the name of democracy."
Republicans probably ought to take a moment to ask themselves what they would think about Iraq if Bill Clinton had decided to go to war there in 1998, which he nearly did, and run into the same problems we now have. Republicans, after all, arrived late to the nation-building party, for which the George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice of campaign 2000 openly expressed something close to contempt. And if, as things were going from bad to worse in Iraq, Clinton had given a speech sounding the theme of the Bush second inaugural, it's hard to imagine the GOP response wouldn't have been to declare him a dangerous Wilsonian lunatic.
As matters stand, even for those who sympathize with the Bush vision, there's one more problem, and it is not small: What exactly has Bush done since January 2005 to "promote democratic movements and institutions," let alone "in every nation and culture"? Where is tyranny now on the run as a result of new U.S. pressure? China hasn't budged except to redouble its engagement with dictatorial regimes abroad in defense of the claim that a country's form of government is nobody's business but those who run it. Russia's Vladimir Putin has become increasingly authoritarian, bombastically so.
Venezuela's Hugo Chávez is even more egregious rhetorically, and his recent policy decrees amount to the farthest-reaching repudiation of market principles since the end of the Cold War. Chávez seems to have found a willing stooge in Bolivia's Evo Morales. In Ukraine, the sheen of the Orange Revolution is gone. Vietnam is locking up Catholic priests. The Cedar Revolution in Lebanon is tottering atop a weak state structure barely able to withstand the brutal forces of the neighborhood. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak pocketed the adulatory congratulations of a success-hungry Bush administration for deigning to allow an actual opposition candidate in his 2005 presidential "election," while making sure the opposition was too weak to mount a serious challenge.
There's more, of course. To the list of places where things are getting worse, one must append a list of places where things aren't getting any better. The buzz in the social-science literature these days is about "sustainable autocracy" and the capacity of tyrants to learn from the mistakes that brought down their predecessors.