MR. BUSH'S LIBERAL PROBLEM
18 Feb 2003
Source: New York Times, February 18, 2003
Mr. Bush's Liberal Problem
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
The big problem with liberals in international affairs is that ever since Woodrow Wilson, they've been too idealistic.
Liberals hamstrung the C.I.A. (thus impairing intelligence collection), scorned the military (undermining a humanitarian force in places like Bosnia and Afghanistan), campaigned against sweatshops in Bangladesh and Cambodia (forcing teenage girls out of manufacturing jobs and into the sex industry), and imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar (destroying the middle class and propping up military dictators).
Now, alas, President Bush is also trying to be a foreign policy idealist — from the right — and is showing the same cavalier obtuseness to practical consequences.
Mr. Bush is, for example, outraged at the way the Chinese government sometimes forces peasants to have abortions. Fair enough. But his solution was to cut off all $34 million in U.S. funding for the United Nations Population Fund, leading to the cancellation of programs in Africa to train midwives, fight AIDS and help pregnant women. The upshot is that women and babies are dying in Africa because of Mr. Bush's idealism.
Many conservatives are deeply sincere in their revulsion for abortion. But they have blindly pursued moralistic policies — like cutting funds for family planning, undermining sex education and stigmatizing condoms — that lead to more abortions. The U.N. estimates that cutting the money for the Population Fund will lead to 800,000 more abortions per year.
Then came North Korea, the place where President Bush has muffed up most dangerously, albeit for the noblest of reasons. Instead of devising a policy toward North Korea, Mr. Bush devised an epithet: "the axis of evil." It's the conservative version of liberal shibboleths like "Make love, not war" — and equally hollow.
Mr. Bush has refused to talk to the North Koreans, because of a highly principled — and entirely impractical — policy that we will not reward bad behavior. The predictable result was that North Korea started up its plutonium assembly line, and in a few years it will be capable of turning out 60 nuclear warheads per year.
Then there's the Middle East. Mr. Bush has a perfectly realistic view of Yasir Arafat — an incompetent leader who dabbles in terrorism — but it's a catastrophic mistake to then wash our hands and walk away. A Middle East peace now seems further away than ever.
Finally, Iraq. Mr. Bush and his aides, like Bobby Kennedy, dream things that never were and say why not. Mr. Bush imagines the transformative effect that a democratic, stable and prospering Iraq would have on the entire Arab world.
Maybe. But it would be helpful if he also had nightmares of things that never were, to understand how policies can go wrong. It seems equally possible that invading Iraq will trigger precisely the scenario we fear — Saddam handing out anthrax or even smallpox to terrorists — and that our invasion will lead thousands of young Arabs to join Al Qaeda. Instead of becoming safer, we could be in a more perilous state than ever.
There's a macabre sign of what's ahead in Iraq. The federal government publishes notices of contracts awarded, and recent listings include announcements from the Defense Personnel Support Center for a total of more than $400,000 for the likes of "Pouch, human remains, type II. Nylon; chloropene."
The irony is that some on the right seem to be sinking into ineffectual idealism just as the left has shown signs of growing out of it. President Clinton moved away from his early demagogic Republican-bashing on China (coddling dictators) and came to appreciate the need to engage China's leaders and bring about change through engagement.
The model in this respect is Jimmy Carter, who first made human rights an essential part of American foreign policy; he stands for ideals but does not let them trample real people. In his travels to third-world hot spots, staring down dictators and fighting disease, Mr. Carter recognizes that what matters most to Nigerian women or North Korean peasants isn't whether the White House mouths pious slogans on their behalf, but whether their children survive.
So let's hope President Bush learns from liberal mistakes and worries less about ideals and more about practical results. The world may not be able to afford much more of his idealism.