The Washington Times

During the remarkable round of interviews he gave to major newspapers last week, President Bush spoke often of his commitment to the spread of democracy, sometimes in startling terms. As he told the Wall Street Journal in an aside after the end of the formal interview, “I understand there are many who say ‘Bush is wrong.’ I assume I’m right. It’s exciting to be part of stimulating a debate of such significance. It really is the philosophical argument of the age.” I don’t know which is the more remarkable: An American president who thinks in terms of “the philosophical argument of the age.” Or that, well, yes, Mr. Bush is right, the question of the spread of democracy really is the philosophical argument of the age.

Mr. Bush has picked his side: He stands for the promotion of democracy and, fresh from his own re-election, has reaffirmed his commitment of the United States to the cause of its promotion. So we have the leader of the world’s biggest power committing it to securing “the Blessings of Liberty” – as the Constitution puts it – not just “to ourselves and our Posterity” but across the globe.

Mr. Bush thinks big. Some might have imagined the war on terror to have been his great project and the one on which his legacy would stand or fall. But here, he has subsumed even that task under the broader “philosophical argument of the age”: The best weapon against terror is political participation of the sort only democracy allows. Terror is born of alienation from the political process, from denial of the ability to participate in making the decisions that govern one’s life.

But isn’t the war on terror really a war against Islamist radicalism? Yes, but considered in terms of “the philosophical argument of the age,” that radicalism is itself an expression of alienation. It will not survive the extension of democracy and political participation, at least not in nearly so virulent and dangerous a form. Islamism grows where Muslims lack democracy, understood in the sense of a permanent political system of self-governance with regular elections and protected minority rights. Islamism has grown in democratic Europe precisely because of Muslim alienation from politics there.

The post-Cold War era saw the rapid spread and (not without bumps) consolidation of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. Yet as recently as a year or two ago, it seemed as if the door was closing on the prospect of further extension of the democratic space: Russia was becoming increasingly authoritarian and was meddling to undemocratic effect in its “near abroad”; Afghanistan was badly divided, prone to warlordism; Iraq was a disappointment. It looked to me like we might be entering a period in which the main action would be the conservation and protection of democratic gains against reactionary forces, rather than further democratic expansion.

Then came the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia, a successful and historic election in Afghanistan, the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine, the end of the Arafat era and the election of a new Palestinian leader who says he wants peace – and, of course, the first national election in Iraq at the end of this month. All of a sudden, Vladimir Putin looks foolish for his bungling intervention. The United States and Europe, notwithstanding bitter differences over Iraq, stand united on Ukraine.

And about Afghanistan and, especially, Iraq: We could have dealt with our security concerns in both places very differently, at considerably less cost in blood and treasure, simply by smashing the Taliban and the Saddam regime and installing local strongmen in their stead, each having been sternly warned by the example of the demise his predecessor of the consequences of future misbehavior, either with regard to harboring terrorists or looking guilty on illicit weapons programs. But we didn’t do that. Instead, we committed ourselves – however fumblingly – to the establishment of decent, democratic government in both places. And by “we,” I mean pre-eminently George W. Bush. He rejected (if he ever entertained) the strongman solution as inadequate.

Go back and read that Wall Street Journal quotation again. Mr. Bush gets a lot of grief for his supposed self-certainty (often attributed, usually disparagingly, to his religious beliefs). Yet what you see here, on the contrary, is a man who sees a “philosophical argument,” which is to say, a contest with at least two sides. His presidency is “stimulating a debate” over the spread of democracy by trying to spread it. He is aware that there are those who say “Bush is wrong.” He doesn’t in turn say they are wrong. He says, “I assume I’m right” – which is to say, he will act in accordance with the conviction “that the philosophical argument of the age” will be resolved in favor of the spread of democracy.

That’s because he thinks democracy is the right side to be on – not in the sense of the “right side of history,” though he has his hopes, but in the sense that the promotion of democracy is morally right. Let those who disagree speak up.