Sunday, February 27, 2005

Bush vs. Putin

President Bush galloped into his second term waving the flag of freedom, his Second Inaugural Address and his State of the Union Address brimming with idealistic references to America's mission to bring the light of democracy and freedom to the four corners of the globe:
As long as the Middle East remains a place of tyranny and despair and anger, it will continue to produce men and movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends. So America is pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the greater Middle East. We will challenge the enemies of reform, confront the allies of terror, and expect a higher standard from our friend. To cut through the barriers of hateful propaganda, the Voice of America and other broadcast services are expanding their programming in Arabic and Persian -- and soon, a new television service will begin providing reliable news and information across the region. I will send you a proposal to double the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy, and to focus its new work on the development of free elections, and free markets, free press, and free labor unions in the Middle East. And above all, we will finish the historic work of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, so those nations can light the way for others, and help transform a troubled part of the world.

America is a nation with a mission, and that mission comes from our most basic beliefs. We have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire. Our aim is a democratic peace -- a peace founded upon the dignity and rights of every man and woman. America acts in this cause with friends and allies at our side, yet we understand our special calling: This great republic will lead the cause of freedom.

According to some historians, the Founding Fathers viewed the Constitution to be the ideal to which all governments should attain, not pretending that they themselves were without imperfection, but rather, that through a system of checks and balances, separation of power, clear demarcations between federal, state, and local governments, and stringent time limits on terms served, we would strive to lessen the flaws inherent in more traditional forms of government. And it has served us well; we are one of the few governments that can essentially change personnel almost overnight without seriously disrupting the system. The Founding Fathers recognized this and actively worked to spread this "gospel" around the globe, with some success mostly in Western Europe and Oceania in the 1800's, Asia in the mid 1900's, and Africa and Eastern Europe during the latter half of the 1900's (with some still ongoing).

But the intensity of this belief has diminished with time, as the succeeding generations (and a preponderance of the population) have not known any other form of government, and therefore do not recognize the reality that it has become.

President Bush is attempting to thrust this idealism back into our collective consciousness, to strengthen our resolve with hope and compassion instead of fear and revenge.

The question is, however, can he realistically bring these statements to bear on his foreign policy? His trip abroad last week, and especially his summit with Putin in Slovakia, was watched critically by many who were curious to see how this "first test" would either support or undercut the "Grand Promises" of his reelection addresses. Russian analysts Goldgeier & McFaul, writing for the Weekly Standard, claimed "If the president neglects to affirm his commitment to freedom with Putin at his side, Bush will be signaling that his words don't count."

Despite this intense scrutiny, President Bush managed to surprise almost everyone, by bluntly asserting (despite all the "diplomatic niceties") that Russia was not fulfilling certain "fundamental" principles of democracy. Nearly all of the following questions focused on democracy, "I think it's very important that all nations understand the great values inherent in democracy," answered President Bush. Even a question specifically framed to give Putin a place to stand was taken by Bush. Despite a relatively successful summit, with progress made concerning stances on North Korea and Iran, the outcome of the meeting was defined by the subsequent press conference, in which Vladimir Putin appeared to have been deeply humiliated.

In the final analysis, however, this should not cause irreparable harm to our relationship with Russia. Putin will likely do some damage control and haranguing when he returns to Moscow, even perhaps firing a few journalists, but ideally will do some reflection on preventing a further rollback of democracy in Russia, and regaining much of the support that he has gradually lost.

Bush has started laying his cards on the table, can he keep up the momentum?