For most of his presidency, George W. Bush has sought to channel Woodrow Wilson - the chief executive who believed it was his mission to spread democracy worldwide, who believed that free elections would thwart tyrants and insure a peaceful future. Bush's credo reached its apogee during his second Inaugural speech. I can remember flirting with hypothermia in the press seats right below his podium, yet the messianic theme still got my full attention ("The concerted effort of free nations to promote democracy is a prelude to our enemies' defeat").
Contrast that soaring idealism, and the visuals of blue-painted fingers, with the current reality of Iraq. As evidenced here and here, it has become clear that the cleansing virtues of free elections are often overrated.
One month after the latest round of Iraqi elections, at least 54 people have died in two days of bombings early this week, as various religious sects and political parties jockey for supremacy. Bush's oft-stated claim that "freedom is on the march" doesn't quite square with U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalamy Khalilzad's warning yesterday that unless the factions stop fighting and killing each other, Iraq "faces the risk of warlordism that Afghanistan went through for a period." Then came today's reaction from Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari (who is backed by a radical anti-American cleric), telling the U.S. ambassador to mind his own business.
Iraq has held free elections - and the religious camp beat the secular camp, with a coalition of Shiite religious parties and groups winning the most seats in Parliament. And election results contrary to Bush administration interests have been the norm elsewhere as well: They voted in Afghanistan, and the warlords made gains. They voted in Egypt, and the Muslim Brotherhood made gains. They voted Lebanon, and Hezbollah made gains. And they voted in Palestine, and Hamas took over the legislature.
The Republican party is just beginning to address the shortcomings of the Wilsonian credo (Wilson said in 1913, "I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men," and wound up stoking anti-American sentiment there). As the Bush administration winds down, there will be debate among conservative thinkers about democratization, and whether and under conditions it is still worth pursuing. Already, there are people in the GOP camp, known informally as "realists" or "nationalists" who don't sing the inherent virtues of free elections. One substantive discussion of the various strains of GOP thinking can be found here. And there is still strong sentiment among traditional conservatives that Bush has badly overreached, and that the Wilsonian impulse should be tamped down in the future.
As George Will put it, at a conservative conference earlier this month, "The phrase 'nation-building' is no better than 'orchid-building.'...We shouldn't believe that we can simply subdue turbulent reality...We are suffering the consequences today in Iraq."