Inaugural Kvetches

by Nathan Hamm on 1/25/2005 · 5 comments

For some reason, I just went through a handful of various complaints about Bush’s inaugural speech.

The inaugural may have been a lot of pretty words, that I’ll concede. Big speeches usually are. But words can make a world of difference sometimes, and in this case, they dress up a pre-existing policy.

One part of that substance–holding countries to their agreements– is something at which I haven’t seen the Bush administration to be particularly adept. The US-Uzbek framework is a case in point. If we want to be taken seriously and really want to get across the message that democracy and human rights are important, we need to follow through.

Praktike has a handful of issues with the speech. Among his charges is that Dictatorships and Double Standards is the GOP foreign policy manual. What’s the Dems book? Faking It: A Primer On Post-Kennedy Fecklessness? (I think your best is Clinton, which is good in my book, as you’ll see below). This kind of partisan sniping is absolutely silly.

Why? I hear the “dictators and double standards” charge a lot regarding the US-Uzbek relationship. Because of statements like this one,

We not only understand that you face these problems in Central Asia; we are ready to help you address them. On this current trip I am informing the leaders I meet of our readiness to provide increased assistance to bolster border security, including in the Ferghana Valley. This will include training and equipment for counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics. At the outset, we will make almost $10 million available for these purposes.

made by Madeleine Albright in 2000. She goes on to criticize the Uzbek government. But then again, the Bush administration has done some public shaming too.

My only explanations for the lack of recognition that the difference between Clinton and Bush policies in Eurasia (and much of the rest of the world for that matter) are simply a matter of scale and rhetorical emphasis are that people: 1) aren’t paying attention; 2) only hear what confirms their biases; 3) a combination of the first two; or, 4) Bush isn’t communicating clearly enough (which I only throw in as a bone to those who want to externalize here–I think the burden should be on doing the work, not making sure everyone understands every last detail).

I don’t know how to say it other than to once again say that democratization isn’t new. Talking about it is. Doing it is bipartisan. Publicly supporting it seems to be something the right is much more concerned about. And why do I don the ideologue’s gloves, something I rarely do here? Because praktike points to this Senate plan as an alternative to Bush’s foreign policy vision. All I can really say in praise is that it is gloriously imprecise, tells a wonderful fairy-tale in the “breeding grounds” section, and pretty much already exists under the current president.

The other point I’d like to make is that I think that the GOP toning down of the speech was absolutely unnecessary. There is a line that struck me as the pragmatic temper that a democratic expansion foreign policy needs. “When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.”

That’s exactly how GWB differs from GHWB. I couldn’t see the elder putting Ukrainian democracy above ties with Russia. We all know he wouldn’t get behind the uprising he encouraged in Iraq.

The “when you stand for liberty” guideline is a damned good one. We shouldn’t absolutely refuse to have anything to do with countries that are not democratic.

So, this is where I ask, what is it that the critics want? Those who call for pragmatism or realism seem to argue that we should have relationships with undemocratic governments. On the other hand, the “double standards” camp seems to be saying we shouldn’t. Forgive me if I’m confused, but these appear to often be the same people. So, what would the world look like under Generic Democrat X? What would our relationship with, say, Uzbekistan be?

I’d bet dollars to donuts it’d be, for all intents and purposes, the same. Kind of how Bush is, for all intents and purposes, a visionary Clinton in an era calling for a declared foreign policy.

Specifically, see Transition Trends:

If “democratization” were to become the vogue in Washington, then great. But since it will be applied unevenly — after all who really thinks the US will apply the “town square test” to Tashkent? — such empty talk is only going to give democratization programs everywhere a bad name. Maybe even endanger a lot of independent projects on the ground in various countries.

Well, I’m not sure what the part on Uzbekistan is supposed to suggest exactly, but I haven’t noticed too many people in Washington getting confused on Uzbekistan’s failings. Not even the Pentagon (they just ignore those issues when they can). I’d like to know what our relationship should look like then. I can pick out improvements I’d like to see, but, given that foreign policy involves more than just the United States (much rhetoric suggesting it is all up to us notwithstanding) and more than just the give and take between two states, what fundamentally should be different in the relationship?

To bring it firmly back to democratization, I’m honestly interested in how Bush support for democratization, which Transition Trends thinks is just empty rhetoric, will have more of a negative impact to democratization projects on the ground than does the success of said projects in Georgia and Ukraine. None of the host countries cared about our rhetoric much, even when delivered publicly and in person, when it seemed that democratization projects went nowhere. The biggest difference in US policy is that Bush has now said it is our policy to support successes where they materialize. Forgive me again for being confused, but I’m getting the impression that Bush shouldn’t be talking about democracy. Now I’m really spinning because I thought that is how Republicans got branded as the Dictatorships and Double Standards party in the first place.

Help me understand this one, friends to my left. I want to know not what the vague plan is, I want to know how the US relationship with a key states would look under Generic Democrat X’s administration. How’s it different? How do you promote democracy? Less? More? More quietly? How do you do it better? Quicker? There are plenty of you guys out there, so I’m sure you could put together a pretty substantial list of alternative policies for a large chunk of countries/regions (and please avoid Richard Clarke’s strange belief that “The Islamic World” = “The Arab World;” in other words, I’d love to hear about the rest of Eurasia, Africa, etc.). I know you can do better than the Senate.

UPDATE: praktike responds. Still though, I don’t see the policy as being different. The rhetorical support is the difference. And the party of the guy saying it. It’s all well and good to say that the administration displays college student idealism, but when the Senate plan is just an imprecise, clunky version of the president’s… Well, what’s the difference again? It seems to me the complaint isn’t the policy but the words used to defend it. The post-election “I see the world for what it really is” claim on the left side of the blogosphere is beginning to look more and more like a justification for uninspiring vision.

I also think the charge that the Bush administration is only interested in tearing down an international system, not build a new one is emblematic of the hopelessly unrealistic standards to which this administration is being held. If I recall, it took us more than 3 1/2 years after WWII to build the Cold War system. And, considering that we aren’t dealing with a war-ravaged Europe, but one that has great interest in preserving the bureaucracies of the Cold War, I certainly wouldn’t expect Bush to be able to build a new system that quickly. But, that’s really neither here nor there. I don’t see how the Senate plan addresses it.

I am also getting the impression that a large complaint is with Bush’s reputation. Again, I think that in much of the world, the poor reputation is as much a function of Bush being the US president as anything else. Sure, he’s a much bitterer pill to swallow for the world in a lot of ways, but I still can’t see how his reputation is reason to assail his rhetorical support for the expansion of democracy.

UPDATE II: In re: praktike’s updates.

Just so I’m clear, we shouldn’t mention that we want and will support the advancement of democracy where we can (I’m not making this up, the speech is fairly reasonable and not overly idealistic if you pay attention to both it and the Bush record)?

No, the complaint is that the gap between the policy and the words is unduly large to the point where it undermines American credibility. Look, even the Bush administration (via anonymous officials) has said that the speech is essentially meaningless. So all it does is highlight how far from American ideals we are today. I don’t see that as good or useful.

I agree that it can create credibility problems and right off the bat in the original post, I said I’m underwhelmed with the Bush administration response to, for example, the Uzbek government’s failures on the strategic framework. We should, at least once, take someone to the barrel on that. Hell, it’s in the speech, but it’s the part I least expect to see.

The words are important though. Given that Bush has a proven track record on his, I understand the speech to be a clear message to democratic activists around the world that we can’t do it all for them, but if they can get most of the way there, we’ll do what we can to get them across the finish line. I think that should be on the table not just because it will embolden some activists, but because it adds weight to future protests.

Rather, it prefers to work out deals on an ad hoc, bilateral basis. Right now, we’re seeing the drawbacks of this model in Iraq as countries have left the coalition, and in Europe where we have failed to hammer out a new Western alliance. It isn’t as if France, its tiresome delusions of geopolitical grandeur notwithstanding, isn’t willing to sit down with us and talk over a common set of rules and strategies. Yes, it would be tough. But that’s why you need good leadership.

I’m sorry to trot this one out because it’s such a dumb phrase, but which vision is the reality-based one? The one that says that the big boys of continental Europe have a vested interest in the old order and need a stimulus to change or the one that says they want to change but are waiting for validation? Never underestimate the power of intertia in politics. And never underestimate the ability of ad hoc arrangements to become the foundation of a new order. [I should mention that I’ve rarely heard of ad hoc institutions that aren’t better at solving the problems they were created to address than generic international institutions.] Post-Cold War Europe has many fewer reasons to come along with a new US-led international than did post-WWII Europe. And, if it sees that the Poles, the Romanians, etc. are the ones gaining from getting in on the ground floor, they’ll be banging at the door for a spot at the table.

I think it’s a lot to ask, and a bit foolish, to demand nearly similar courses of action when new international institutions are needed when the circumstances are so wildly different.

Nathan’s other point, that the Senate plan is overly vague, not altogether different from the Bush administration’s stated policies, and does not exactly propose a new collective security framework, is more reasonable.

Hell, I didn’t think the other objections were unreasonable…

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Tim Newman January 26, 2005 at 2:00 am

The US-Uzbek relationship is a bandwagon which attracts a lot of people on the Left. Unfortunately, most commentators ion the subject are hopelessly ill-informed, having failed to do even the most basic research. A case in point is here.

praktike January 27, 2005 at 1:10 pm

“I think itâ��s a lot to ask, and a bit foolish, to demand nearly similar courses of action when new international institutions are needed when the circumstances are so wildly different.”

Well, I didn’t advocate such a thing but rather that the U.S. sit down with our Western allies and work out a new and comprehensive security framework. Clearly, the old ways are no good and existing institutions need to be reformed or replaced altogether. The Bush administration is doing things piecemeal, and one does wonder to what extent, based on its rhetoric and those of its supporters, on collective security at all.

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