One flag too high

Posted: Jul 16, 2006 12:01 AM

President Bush is a victim of his idealistic certitudes. These have their place. It is hard to imagine how Great Britain would have survived the year 1942 without Churchill's apocalyptic reassurances, never mind that when they were spoken, they must have been the cause of laughter in the Nazi high command, which brought them in via radio antennas sitting on top of the Eiffel Tower. The problem has been that without Bush's high calls for global political reform, the American public would have gone along only reluctantly with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And enthusiasm for these wars is now flagging because we have assured ourselves that we aren't there to choke off nuclear arms development. We are there to save the locals from the kind of government they would have if left to their own resources.

We are struggling hard, but not hard enough, to reanimate our far-flung missions abroad. The distortions are by no means exclusively the result of Republican shortsightedness. We are acting out, in Iraq and Afghanistan, ideologies that trace back to the universalization of the American creed. We pronounced, in the Declaration of Independence, ideals we conceived of as universally appealing, but which no one had the least intention of exporting beyond the boundaries of the newly independent country.

All of that came much much later, becoming full-blown U.S. policy only in the reign of Woodrow Wilson, whose espousal of ideological diplomacy caused desperate problems for himself, his administration and the League of Nations. Missions for world reform came back in the late '30s, provoked by the universalist aims of Soviet communism and, though more finite in its appetites, the far reaches of the Nazis' Third Reich. The rhetoric of the Four Freedoms and of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was there to justify international activity on the part of the United States: the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the hundred meetings of native idealists who reasoned, with great appeal, that the liberties we would not ourselves do without were written in a universal idiom, leaving us as chief agents of evangelism.

More has happened than merely the difficulties we are having in Iraq and the reappearance of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Critics of our failed policies there can come up with plausible excuses. There is the factor of a lack of manpower, and of the dissipation of unified activity because of local separatisms. No one can doubt that the divisions among Kurds and Shia and Sunnis are responsible for much that is awry, and Peter Galbraith's proposal that Iraq be divided immediately into three sovereign political entities is attractive. But what has not happened is any deep growth of democratic roots, let alone branches and leaves -- bills of rights, judicial procedures, the division of power -- that one associates with organically secure liberal societies. 

And it is worse even than that. The faith of Islam is in fighting trim. In millions, the Islamists are traveling and settling abroad. From these reserves we get occasional irruptions of high-tech loathing, in lower Manhattan and Washington, D.C., in Spanish trains, in British subways. The elderly voices of Islam that stressed toleration and cohabitation are so quiet they might as well be silent. Columnist Pat Buchanan gives us a prickly rundown: "Islamists are taking over in Somalia. They are in power in Sudan. The Muslim Brotherhood won 60 percent of the races it contested in Egypt. Hezbollah swept the board in southern Lebanon. Hamas seized power from Fatah in the West Bank and Gaza. The Shia parties who hearken to Ayatollah Sistani brushed aside our favorites, Chalabi and Iyad Allawi, in the Iraqi elections. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the most admired Iranian leader since Khomeini. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is staging a comeback."

All the world is waiting to see what is going to happen in Egypt after three decades of the most expensive U.S. patronage in history (matched only by our patronage of Israel). And what of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and Indonesia? Not many are predicting that the future there will be pacific and liberal.

Two challenges are posed. The first is relatively manageable: Lower the flag on American universalism -- not to half-mast, but not as toplofty as it has been flying since the end of the Second World War. The second is tougher. Why is Islam burning bright? What on earth do they have that we don't get from Christ our King? If what they want is a religious war, are we disposed to fight it?