When it comes to nation building, President Bush is a hypocrite, at least according to most liberals, mainstream journalists and all professional Democrats. The argument goes something like this: Bush opposed "national building" during the presidential campaign. He now supports nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ergo: The "W" in George W. Bush stands for Whypocrite (the "W" is silent, of course).
Now, by my lights, Bush needn't be a hypocrite. First of all, the nation building he opposed during the campaign was the sort of stuff Charles Krauthammer has called foreign policy as social work - propping up countries such as Somalia, Rwanda and other places where America has absolutely no strategic interest whatsoever. Nation-building efforts in Iraq, and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan, are hardly irrelevant to our national security interests. Rather, they're central to it.
Also, couldn't Bush simply have changed his mind? After all, he did say many, many times that September 11 changed everything - including the assumptions that guided our foreign policy for decades.
America was arguably opposed to nation building until the lessons of WWII's aftermath and the beginning of the Cold War made rebuilding Japan and Germany seem like a good idea. Now, in the aftermath of 9-11 and the Iraq War, building a stable and democratic Iraq seems like a good idea.
Considering how so many people call Bush a rigid ideologue, you could say he deserves some credit for having the flexibility and common sense to abandon preconceived notions to fit new circumstances.
Whatever, let's just say, for the sake of argument, that President Bush is a hypocrite. Well, so are his critics.
In politics, charges of hypocrisy usually cut both ways. For example, during the Florida folderol, liberals screeched bloody murder about the alleged hypocrisy of a conservative Supreme Court committing "judicial activism" to the cheers of Republicans.
Never mind the merits of the case (I think the decision was sound), the charge of hypocrisy was in itself hypocritical. After all, liberals have promoted and celebrated judicial activism for decades. Suddenly, when the court did something the liberals didn't like, they whined about judicial activism.
What's going on now with the debate over "nation building" is even more rank. For more than a year, Democrats scorned the White House for trying "nation building on the cheap" in Afghanistan.
John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and others bemoaned the administration's reluctance to secure all of Afghanistan and topple the regional warlords who plague the more remote regions of the country. Al Gore lamented that Afghanistan was "falling back into chaos" because George Bush was unwilling to put American money where his mouth was.
Even more intensely, Democrats denounced the Bush Administration for not understanding how long and difficult the task would be to rebuild Iraq. While grilling Pentagon officials shortly before the war, Sen. Joseph Biden rightly insisted "that maintaining a secure environment after a possible war with Iraq" would be essential "for any positive change we wish to bring to Iraq." Biden wanted to "make sure we don't do what we've done in Afghanistan" in Iraq.
Well, now it turns out the Democrats want to do exactly that. Virtually all of the Democratic presidential aspirants - including their new golden boy Wes Clark - don't want to spend any more money on Iraq.
Each one of them has some cutsey-wutsey joke or jibe about how outrageous it is that we can spend money on a new power grid or on healthcare in Iraq but we can't spend money on such things here at home. "If we can open firehouses in Baghdad, we can keep them open in the United States," declared John Edwards, a candidate who was particularly adamant that we do more in Afghanistan this time last year.
If you want to call George Bush a hypocrite, that's fine. But why aren't Democrats cheering his "flip-flop" as proof that they were right all along? After all, that's what the Democrats did when Bush reversed himself on the issue of creating a department of homeland security. Joe Lieberman applauded Bush for following his advice.
But now, they're silent. "You'd think Democrats would have applauded the president's conversion, perhaps even claimed credit for it," writes Peter Beinart in The New Republic. "Instead leading Democrats responded to Bush's U-turn with one of their own."
The reason for President Bush's "reversal" - to the extent it was one - can be attributed to the responsibility of governing. The president is ultimately responsible for American foreign policy and so he has to do what's right as he sees it. The Democrats are out of power which, alas, allows them to be out of principles as well.
It's too bad the Democratic Party seems more committed to defeating Bush than winning its own arguments - or winning the war on terrorism for that matter. Compared to the alternative, I'll take Bush's "hypocrisy" any day.