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Thursday, January 20, 2005

The realism of idealism

What a great and revolutionary inaugural speech. Never has liberty been so championed, not only as an ideal to be defended (we saw that in WWII), but as a sword for unstringing the evils that tyranny has unleashed. The left, of course, will be out to interpret this war plan as extraordinarily dangerous. To the left, any willingness to fight, instead of negotiate, is extraordinarily dangerous.

Even on the right, some are alarmed. Peggy Noonan's review at OpinionJournal.com sees the breadth and idealism of the president's ambitions as prompted by an unhinged religious desire to achieve perfection on Earth, unbound by the constraints of reality. She misses the entire point of the speech: that idealistic integrity--promoting liberty--is the realistic key to defeating the totalitarian ambitions of our enemies.

If President Bush was an unrealistic utopian, he would have championed, not liberty, but democracy. That is the careless standard: just assume that if people have a chance to vote, they will favor liberty. G.W. did mention democracy once three times, but he insisted on liberty fifteen times. This is the republican ideal, ensconced in our own Constitution. If majority rule overruns liberty, it is just another form of tyranny: tyranny of the majority.

To see the realism of this heightened idealism, consider the example of rights for women, which the president explicitly mentioned, putting the countries we liberate on notice that our cooperation is going to be contingent on women gaining basic civil and political rights. Without this demand, democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq could easily degenerate into popular Islamic totalitarianism, where the male vote, being the only vote, is bought off by the power over women that Islamic totalitarianism institutionalizes. Insisting on the higher principle of liberty forecloses that perversion of democracy.

At the same time as liberty is a higher standard, it also allows flexibility. Democracy does not have to be the first step. We can be “realistic” towards a country like China, appreciating its steps towards liberty, and trusting, as far as we can, that this liberty will one day lead to democracy. If there is a more realistic option, we would all like to hear it.

Noonan doesn’t see the realism of idealism. She only sees the idealism, denigrating it first with the studied worry of an Ellen Goodman (cringing at the religiosity of it and the lack of “nuance”), then with the gusto of a Molly Ivins (calling it “over the top” and “inebriated”). Peter Robinson at NRO piles on with the complaint that the address amounts to a "thoroughgoing exaltation of the state." "Tell me I'm wrong, please," he asks. Peter, you are wrong.

So what if "Bush has just announced that we must remake the entire third world in order to feel safe in our own homes." That's the fact. Transforming Syria, Iran and North Korea will fill our plate for the next four years but will not in itself be enough. Burgeoning communism in Latin America, making common cause with the Islamo-fascist enemy, is a monstrous threat. So is the return of Russia to dictatorship. Should we abandon now the carrots and sticks of liberalization that fifteen years ago helped free Russia from communist grasp?

The only thing that has changed from the cold war is that we have finally figured out the most effective way to fight a life and death ideological world war. The way to win is by doing right in the world. Following this course is not an expansion of foreign entanglements. It is a strategic advance, aimed at the only way to lessen foreign entanglements: by winning the war that we are in.

On domestic policy, Robinson bemoans the president's championship of Social Security, without noting the president's call to move toward individual ownership of retirement savings. If individual ownership of Social Security accounts does come about, people will next want complete control over their retirement accounts and government will be out. The socialization of retirement, the centerpiece of illiberal "liberalism," will finally be purged. President Bush is redirecting the river that will clean out the Augean Stable. This is not statism.

Both in domestic policy and foreign policy, G.W. is championing liberty over democracy. In what may be the ultimate small "r" republicanism speech, the president is misunderestimated again, by friend and foe alike. That's okay. G.W. likes it that way. His closing line perfectly captures the realism of idealism, and the irrelevance of the naysayers: "Renewed in our strength--tested, but not weary--we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom." Our "nuanced" elites can cringe all they want. Oppressed people everywhere will hear the call, and think to dream big. From such dreams do the greatest achievements in the history of freedom spring.

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