House International Relations Chairman Henry Hyde, the 81-year-old Illinois Republican, embodies the institutional memory of modern American foreign policy, which is why it mattered a great deal last week when he politely made plain he is not marching in President Bush's global crusade for democracy.
Hyde used a committee appearance by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to call America back toward what he termed the "clear-eyed and sober-minded understanding of this world" embraced by our forebears.
Hyde's own "sober-minded understanding" is a morally responsible realism. "Fidelity to our ideals means that we have little choice but to support freedom around the world. No one with a heart or a head would wish it otherwise," he said. "But we also have a duty to ourselves and to our own interests, which may sometimes necessitate actions focused on more tangible returns than those of altruism."
Hyde did not cite President Bush or Rice by name. But his presentation -- available in video on his committee's Website -- masterfully rebutted the point of view expressed in written testimony Rice submitted but did not read. Here, Rice prominently quoted President Bush's soaring declaration that it is "the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
By contrast, Hyde bluntly warned against what he called "the Golden Theory," which rests on the false assumption that "our interests are best advanced by assigning a central place in the foreign policy of our nation to the worldwide promotion of democracy."
His critique of this "Golden Theory" suggests a foreign-policy principle that echoes an ancient principle of medicine: First, do no harm.
"We can and have used democracy as a weapon to destabilize our enemies, and we may do so again," said Hyde. "But if we unleash revolutionary forces in the expectation that the result can only be beneficent, I believe we are making a profound and perhaps uncorrectable mistake. History teaches that revolutions are very dangerous things, more often destructive than benign, and uncontrollable by their very nature. Upending established order based on a theory is far more likely to produce chaos than shining uplands."