There's a joke making the rounds about a late-night conversation between the Deity and George W. Bush. The exchange goes as follows -- God to Bush: "What are you doing?" Bush to God: "I'm changing the world." God to Bush: "And you started with Iraq?!"
It's funny and at the same time it isn't, because this president really does mean to change the world. What the world thinks about it is pretty much irrelevant, as is the opinion of the American public at large.
The slim majority of voters who endorsed the Bush ticket last November thought they were voting to ensure their security at home, or to support the troops overseas, or to affirm some particular version of personal morality. They were wrong. What they cast their ballots for, it turns out, was a continuation -- perhaps even an enlargement -- of the White House crusade to reform international behavior by forcibly implanting selected American values around the globe.
The presidential inaugural address of Jan. 20 spelled out the future course in clear, unambiguous language unencumbered by logic. Mr. Bush began by inextricably tying American fortunes to developments worldwide, boldly proclaiming (despite an absence of evidence) that the survival of American liberty depended directly on the success of liberty overseas.
Furthermore, he asserted (again, without any factual basis) that world peace itself depended entirely on an expansion of world freedom -- freedom alone, mind you, not the eradication of poverty, ignorance, racism or any of mankind's other multifarious afflictions. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (War, Famine, Pestilence and Death) must be breathing easier.
Equating freedom with the conservative virtues of republicanism (democracy once removed) and laissez-faire, the president outlined its global implementation: "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
More than that, the US would be proactive: "We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation" and "encourage reform in other governments." In other words, when it comes to proper political institutions, the world's business is now America's business, and nothing will stand in the way of righteousness as Washington defines it.
On its face, the Bush foreign policy agenda is nobility itself; democratic government in the abstract is a fine thing. The question is whether the US has the right and the duty to impose it on others, especially given our flawed application of the concept at home. Is it the proper role of Americans to police the world, to force its populations to shape up and be like us?
This notion comes perilously close to the crude Ann Coulter dictum that we should invade offending countries, kill their leaders and Christianize their citizens. The Founders never intended that Americans would be the Visigoths (or the vigilantes) of the next millennium.
And what would we be imposing on the world to replace the tyranny George W. Bush sees all around him? The answer, presumably, is the pure, pristine American form of government. Unfortunately, American democracy in the early 21st century is not classical democracy (witness the 2000 election); it is not even, strictly speaking, democracy at all, but rather representative plutocracy.
In George W. Bush's America, people do not rule; money rules. The agenda is set by dominant economic interests, largely corporate, and the imposition of "democracy" abroad is part and parcel of extending that agenda to the world community. As presently constituted, what the Bush administration calls democracy is really the political arm of corporate globalization, and so long as money corruption remains the essence of its root system, the overseas branches will bear bitter fruit for the liberated masses of the Middle East and elsewhere.
There is also the inconvenient question of what the world, as opposed to George W. Bush, really wants. Perhaps parts of it don't want American-style democracy; perhaps they want their own form of democracy or none at all. The president came face to face with this possibility last December, when the US consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was attacked. Said our nonplussed but resolutely obstinate leader at the time: "They want us to leave Saudi Arabia; they want us to leave Iraq."
You think? What could possibly possess foreigners with vastly different cultures from our own to resent our overweening presence on their soil? The president, bewildered and belligerent, couldn't conceive of an answer. A man with a mission to change the world can't comprehend a world that doesn't welcome his changes.
Some observers have unaccountably characterized Bush's accelerated global crusade for freedom and democracy as "Wilsonian" -- a reference to the cerebral and idealistic 28th president, Woodrow Wilson, who during World War I proposed making the world "safe for democracy."
Wilson, a staunch progressive internationalist, must be spinning in his grave. Context is everything, and Wilson was speaking in the context of a war he did not start and did not want, a war he reluctantly joined in following such provocations as the sinking of neutral American shipping. Preemptive war was not part of the Wilson lexicon; he resisted hostilities for three years on the grounds of being "too proud to fight." When finally committed, Wilson's goal of "peace without victory" included, first and foremost, the creation of a League of Nations, predecessor to the United Nations, as a bulwark against future conflicts.
Bush, like Wilson before him, is engaged with the wider world, but there the similarity ends. Where Wilson was, above all, a multilateralist, Bush is a unilateralist. Where Wilson fathered the League of Nations, Bush disrespects and ignores its successor, the UN. Where Wilson saw war as a last resort, Bush views it as a first option. The current president is actually closer in his perspective to the 19th-century Prussian philosopher of modem warfare, Karl von Clausewitz, who famously described war as politics and diplomacy by other means.
If his lopsided new proposed budget is any indication, Mr. Bush wants the American people to subsidize his grandiose, Prussian-like dreams of glory on the world stage by, in effect, sacrificing domestic progress at home. However, judging by falling military enlistments and declining presidential poll numbers, the people do not agree. They are closer, it appears, to Wilson than to Clausewitz.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Maine.