The Breakfast Table

What a Transformational Night!

And a very good morning to you, Joe,

Not transformational?! Not transformational?!? What George Bush did last night was reshape the foreign policy of the most powerful nation in the history of the world, defining America’s mission in noble and ambitious terms, declaring war on the pre-eminent evil ideology of the 21st century. And you think that wasn’t transformational? And that’s not all. He laid the groundwork for building a permanent Republican majority. In the middle third of the speech, which I thought was dull and rote, Bush articulated the orthodox Republican themes that guarantee you 40 percent of the electorate. But in the first and last third, in which he played all the McCainiac themes—patriotic mission abroad, service beyond your self-interest at home—Bush appealed to the middle 20 percent of the electorate that has been floating around waiting to be grabbed. In his Democratic response, by contrast, Gephardt was utterly orthodox. He did nothing to reach beyond the 40 percent of the electorate that is always going to vote Democrat.

The foreign policy section of the speech was dramatic. As you well know, there has been a debate roiling in this country between realists and idealists. The realists fear that we will overstretch. They believe in defining our national interest in limited terms. They’re against nation-building and going off trying to spread democracy around the world. The idealists believe what is says in the Declaration. That all human beings are born with inalienable rights. They believe it is in our interests to spread democracy because bourgeois democratic nations by and large don’t breed poisonous ideological groups that threaten American lives.

Bush 2000 was firmly in the realist camp. Bush 2002 is firmly in the idealist camp. If the Bushies were true to their principles they would name my colleagues Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol co-secretaries of state because what they have been writing for years is what Bush is saying now.

Bush clearly sees Sept. 11 as the tip of a big and dangerous iceberg. He has embraced some version of the view, which comes in Chris Hitchens, Ian Buruma, Bernard Lewis, and Daniel Pipes forms, that the radical Islamicists represent an ideology that is irreparably hostile to civilized society and all it stands for. Do I gather from your message that you don’t? You say Iran and Iraq are working on weapons of mass destruction mostly to deter each other and maybe Israel. Do you think that they are just local powers vying for a little more power, territory, and prestige?

I really think the evidence points otherwise. Many of the radical Islamicists seem to me motivated by a faith that is beyond the realpolitik calculus of normal power-seeking. Saddam is a separate case since he’s not a religious nut, simply a megalomaniac. But he has forgone more than $150 billion in oil revenues over the past years so he can keep his chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs. I would say that one of the lessons of Sept. 11 is that if some evil man says he is going to kill you, if he spends his treasure building up weapons he can use to kill you, and if he develops plans for how he is going to kill you, then it is not foolish to consider the possibility that he may actually try to kill you.

Last night Bush practically declared war on Iraq, and he put a chill into the spines of those in Iran. He bravely named Hamas and Hezbollah as members of this terror axis (I’m sure they were spitting up their brandies over at the State Department). I think Bush has seen the menace for what it is and laid out a vision for fighting it.

There’s a word for that: Transformational.