Woodrow Wilson never got headlines like these: "Bush in pledge to wipe out tyranny," said an astonished Financial Times last Friday. "Tyrants, beware!" was the blunt warning of the New York Daily News.
The aftershocks of President Bush's inaugural address are still rumbling around the world. And, frankly, it's nice to imagine all those tyrants quaking in their jackboots. But the neo-Wilsonians in the administration need to connect the president's idealism about global transformation with the reality that even America's immense power has its limits. Iraq is in many ways an object lesson in the dangers of romanticizing and over-idealizing America's ability to transform other cultures.
To get a better fix on the promise and peril of Bush's speech, I spoke Monday by telephone with one of the leading revolutionaries of our era, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. His "rose revolution" in late 2003 was a model for the kind of change that Bush envisions, and he is a living testament to Bush's promise: "Democratic reformers facing repression, prison or exile can know: America sees you for who you are -- the future leaders of your free country."
But even Saakashvili expresses a note of caution. "I believe that fundamentally Bush's vision is right, but how to attain it is another matter," he says. "It shouldn't be understood as a call for immediate revolt. That won't work."
What made peaceful change possible in Georgia, says Saakashvili, wasn't American power but a network of local and international institutions and partnerships. "The resources to support change are much wider than to send troops," he explains. "There is the Internet, TV, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]. Americans helped us most by channeling support to free Georgian news media. That was more powerful than 5,000 Marines."
"You cannot impose civil society from the outside -- you see that in Iraq," argues Saakashvili. Building the institutions that can truly change societies is a struggle that takes decades.
Bush's idealism astonishes even Saakashvili. The Georgian leader recalls a meeting at the White House last year in which he tried to engage Bush by telling him of Georgia's strategic importance because of its proximity to Caspian Sea oil. The president didn't seem interested. It was only when Saakashvili began talking about freedom and liberty, he says, that Bush got excited.
Saakashvili also praises Bush for resisting the normal pragmatic trade-offs. He remembers urging Bush to back another peaceful revolution in the former Soviet Union by supporting demands for a rerun of the fraudulent Ukrainian election. But he expected that Bush would cave when Ukraine's then-president, Leonid Kuchma, threatened to withdraw his country's troops from Iraq. After all, America badly needed the few allies it had in the Iraq coalition. But Bush didn't let his pragmatic need for Ukrainian troops temper his support for Ukrainian democracy.
The bloodless revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine make the process look easy. As Saakashvili says, "They looked like folk festivals, with crowds in the street, bonfires and balloons. But what do you do when you go out in the street and they shoot you? If you use force, that makes the whole thing very difficult. This is a very hard dilemma."
The best guidance for Bush and the neo-Wilsonians is to remember the patient, prudent struggle of the Cold War. U.S. officials had talked glibly about rolling back Soviet power until the Hungarian people tried to do just that in 1956 and America didn't come to their aid. In a nuclear world, it was just too dangerous. That generation learned to be more careful about encouraging oppressed people to overthrow their masters -- and to avoid making promises the United States couldn't keep. What won the Cold War was the idea of freedom, to be sure, but it was coupled with a sometimes brutal pragmatism.
In the hubbub after the president's speech, it was appropriate that the man the White House called out for damage control was the most prominent surviving member of the Cold War generation, George H.W. Bush. "People want to read a lot into it -- that this means new aggression or newly assertive military forces," said the former president. "That's not what that speech is about. It's about freedom." Well, as the saying goes, father knows best.
What I liked best was George W. Bush's recognition that people around the world want the same things Americans do. Yes, Mr. President, they surely want freedom. But they also want security, economic justice, equality and the rule of law. America may best achieve the universal goals Bush expressed not by sounding the trumpet, but by laboring in the vineyard.