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."
It is also a mistake, he argued, to assume that the democratic development of East Asian and European nations liberated by U.S. forces in World War II -- and then occupied by U.S. forces for long periods afterward -- foreshadows what might happen now in other regions of the globe. Even in Western Europe, "we devoted enormous resources toward enforcing order, promoting cooperation, defending against invasion, removing barriers, reviving economies and a host of other unprecedented innovations," he said. "The resulting transformation is usually ascribed to the workings of democracy, but it is due far more to the impact of the long-term U.S. presence."
His perspective on this, it must be assumed, is informed by his own experience in both military and political combat.
In 1942, when he was 18, Hyde left Georgetown University to join the Navy. On Jan. 9, 1945, he commanded Landing Craft Tank 1148, an amphibious vessel that dropped U.S. forces on a beach northwest of Manila in the Japanese-occupied Philippines.
He remained on duty in the Philippines until a year after V-J Day.
Hyde was elected to Congress in 1974, when the Cold War was descending toward its darkest hours. But in the 1980s, serving on both the international relations and intelligence committees, he would become the most eloquent congressional spokesman for the policies of President Reagan that brought down the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union without precipitating another world war.
Now, in what he has announced is his final term, Hyde may become an intellectual Founding Father for an enduring post-9/11 foreign policy -- a policy rooted in reality, not ideology.
Hyde's most crucial insight is that a global U.S. crusade for democracy is not only unwise, but unsustainable. It would, he says, "require that we possess an unbounded power and undertake an open-ended commitment of time and resources, which we cannot and will not do."
Attempting it could bring unexpected and tragic results. "It may, in fact, constitute an uncontrollable experiment with an outcome akin to that faced by the Sorcerer's Apprentice," said Hyde, referring to the boy whose ill-considered magic made a mess of his master's house.
An ill-considered U.S. foreign policy, by comparison, could make a messy world even messier.
Sooner or later, U.S. policymakers will discover that Henry Hyde is right again. America will be safer the sooner they do.