Ballot Box

Turning Bush

Bush’s evolving ideas about war, weakness, and women.

Click here to read William Saletan’s analysis of President Bush’s Sept. 11 televised address from Ellis Island.

Today, President Bush is delivering several speeches about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and their implications. In an op-ed in this morning’s New York Times, Bush revisits familiar themes, but he also indicates important short-term changes in his thinking and long-term changes in the thinking of American conservatives. Here are a few.

1. Multilateralism. In the debate over Iraq, Bush has been hammered for trampling or ignoring the concerns of American allies. The message seems to be sinking in. He speaks of “building good relations among the world’s great powers” and “gathering broad international coalitions to increase the pressure for peace. America needs partners to preserve the peace, and we will work with every nation that shares this noble goal.” This is a significant revision of the unilateralist doctrine, enunciated a year ago by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, that “the mission determines the coalition.” Bush is still saying that the goal determines the coalition, but the goal is framed vaguely, in terms of peace. The exact nature of missions to achieve that goal is now implicitly open to negotiation, since Bush “needs partners.”

2. Pre-emption. Through most of the Iraq debate, Bush’s rationale for military action has remained fuzzy. Gradually, his doctrine is becoming clearer, and so are its implications. In his op-ed, he says the world must confront “regimes that support terror, seek chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and build ballistic missiles.” The third criterion is new and important: It might limit the doctrine of pre-emption to states that can threaten not just their neighbors but countries beyond their own regions, possibly including the United States. Implicitly, it raises the question of whether we’re prepared to confront North Korea in the same way Bush proposes to confront Iraq. Before going to war, it’s important to know that your government is sincere about its stated reasons. It’s equally important to know what you’re in for if you follow through on those principles elsewhere.

Bush also shortcuts his administration’s previous arguments that if Iraq gets nuclear weapons, it might use them to attack or blackmail the United States. “We must deny terrorists and their allies the destructive means to match their hatred,” he writes. On this view, Bush doesn’t have to debate what Saddam Hussein would do with nukes. Iraq’s mere possession of such weapons is unacceptable. Of course, in that case, so is North Korea’s.

3. Order. Previous wars pitted nations against each other. Bush essentially says that whole framework is passé. “The world’s great powers stand on the same side of a divide—united by common dangers of terrorist violence and chaos,” he writes. He speaks of “a choice between lawful change and chaotic violence.” He praises China and singles out Russia as “an important partner in the war on terror.” Some of this is just diplomatic suck-up in advance of whatever votes on Iraq may be necessary in the United Nations Security Council. But thinking of nations as natural allies simply because of their ability to maintain order inevitably limits our willingness to criticize nations that maintain order at the price of human rights.

One of the most interesting themes in Bush’s essay is his emphasis on the perils not of aggression but of weakness. “Weak states, like Afghanistan, can pose a great danger to the peace of the world,” he notes. Later, he warns of “weak governments that are unable to enforce order or patrol their borders.” A foreign policy driven by fear of power vacuums is certain to reduce American pressure for individual freedom in other lands.

4. Values. Recent presidents of both parties have justified American intervention abroad in terms of promoting civil liberties and equal justice. Bush commits his foreign policy to those two ideas but also to several others that should warm the hearts of Republicans: private property, the rule of law, and “limits on the power of the state.” He puts a conservative twist on idealistic interventionism.

At the same time, Bush commits his party to sexual equality as a cardinal value of foreign policy. He lists “respect for women” alongside his other guiding principles, and in a remarkable pairing, he declares that “the deliberate murder of innocent civilians and the oppression of women are everywhere and always wrong.” This isn’t the first time a conservative president has championed the rights of women, but it is the first time these rights have been elevated to such prominence. If Bush thinks Saddam is a handful, wait till he has to take on Phyllis Schlafly.