The Self Made Pundit
Wednesday, November 26, 2003
ASK NOT WHAT BUSH CAN DO FOR YOUR COUNTRY: Many Americans of a certain age have long felt that a dream of idealistic government died 40 years ago with the assassination of President Kennedy.
Thanks to President Bush, however, there is a new dream of idealism in government. But in the hands of this president with the reverse Midas touch, the new dream is a nightmare.
President Kennedy inspired many Americans with his call for idealism in government. Kennedy’s admonition “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” was not empty rhetoric.
A strain of tough-minded idealism was present in many of the policies and initiatives of the Kennedy administration. Sometimes the idealism was front and center, resulting in initiatives such as the Peace Corps and the negotiation of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Other times, the idealism was tempered, and even slowed, by political considerations or other pragmatic concerns. This was the case with civil rights, which the Kennedy administration approached gingerly at first but eventually came around to promoting. Even if the idealism did not always win out, its influence was pervasive.
The idealism of the Kennedy administration was successful because it was combined with a tough-minded realism that guarded against wishful thinking.
Kennedy’s idealism contained a strong anti-communist bent without distorting a realistic view of the world. It was an idealism that was strong enough to pull back when caution was in the nation’s best interests. Thus, when confronted with the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy decided not to support militarily the ill-advised invasion of Cuba by CIA-backed anti-Castro Cubans. This caution was also seen during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Kennedy rejected advice to invade Cuba and instead remained firm in seeking and obtaining a peaceful resolution to what could have been a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union.
Kennedy’s idealism was the idealism of a pragmatic politician who wanted to improve the world while mindful of the limitations that the world imposed on him.
That was the idealism in the government of yesteryear. An idealism that was tempered with realism and an appreciation for long-term consequences.
Today our government has strains of an idealism that is filtered not through realism, but through a rigid right-wing ideology. An idealism that can be recklessly destructive as it seeks to remake the world while ignoring the likely consequences of its actions.
Bush’s idealism is the grandiose idealism of the schizophrenic. Bush seeks to remake the word without regard for the limitations of the world – or even reality.
Bush decided to push America into invading Iraq largely because he was in thrall to the twisted idealism of naive neoconservative ideologues who believed that an American invasion would be followed by Iraq transforming itself into a peaceful democracy practically overnight.
This neoconservative dream of engineering a democratic transformation of the Middle East was closer to a schizophrenic delusion than a serious plan. It was a dream that jumbled together imperialism, nationalism, unilateralism, arrogance and, yes, even idealism. But it was an idealism that was constrained and twisted by a rigid neoconservative ideology that accepts the truth of only those theories that support its pre-conceived worldview. It was an incredibly stunted and myopic idealism that was incapable of integrating other values – such as respect for international order – or even an appreciation for reality.
Now that Bush has plunged America and Iraq into his neoconservative dream, it has turned out to be a nightmare. The weapons of mass destruction that were supposedly the main justification for war are nowhere to be found. The fighting and dying continue long past the point when Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. As I discussed in my previous post, BUSH'S WISHFUL THINKING DEBATES CLARK’S STRATEGIC VISION, while Bush has espoused noble intentions for the Middle East, he has failed to offer any realistic plan for success in the pacification of Iraq. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan Al Qaeda and the Taliban are taking advantage of the Bush administration’s neglect of that country and are regrouping.
Since the idealism of the Bush administration is subservient to its ideology, the administration has found it difficult to adjust to reality.
The idealism of the Bush administration is akin to the idealism of the old-time American Communists who denied the reality of Stalin’s brutality less it threaten their dream of a Marxist utopia. Similarly, the Bush idealists had this dream that invading Iraq would be the first step in remaking the entire Middle East into a democratic utopia. They did not let realistic considerations such as the unpredictability of war and the continuing terrorist threat in the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan distract them from trying to live out their dream.
Unlike Bush, Kennedy showed that it is possible for a politician to be both an idealist and a realist. Kennedy was more a pragmatist that an idealist. Ironically, Kennedy’s pragmatism enabled his idealism to be strong and effective.
In contrast to Kennedy, Bush has demonstrated how idealism without realism can result in naivety, one of the most dangerous traits for a statesman to have. Such naivety led Bush to blunder into his Iraqi adventure – for the grand purpose of remaking the Middle East – instead of finishing the more urgent (yet less imperial) job of chasing down Osama bin Laden and the remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Bush’s unrealistic idealism has been harmful to America’s national security. Unfortunately, when Bush asked what he could do for his country, he lacked the judgment to answer that question with realism instead of ideology.