The Washington Times
RIGA, Latvia. –At the Riga airport on the way to a German Marshall Fund-sponsored conference running parallel to the biannual NATO summit, a German friend asked me what I thought George W. Bush would say in the speech he was scheduled to give. I said I thought he had better give a “values” speech. My interlocutor replied, “then we’re in big trouble.”
My German friend, like the vast majority of his countrymen and no small number of Americans, is no fan of the 43rd president of the United States. He regards Mr. Bush as a quixotic adventurer, out to remake the world in accordance with a naive, religiously inspired mission of spreading democracy, unconstrained either by humility or by due regard for unintended consequences or by law, with Iraq the predictable and disastrous result. And he, by the way, is one of the staunchest German defenders of a strong trans-Atlantic partnership.
This NATO summit was not expected to produce dramatic headlines, such as those that accompanied the initiation of 10 newly free nations of Central and Eastern Europe into the alliance in post-Cold War summits past. Hopes for, and in the case of my German friend worries about, a further push eastward, with the initiation of the accession process for Ukraine and Georgia, came unglued earlier this year with an election in Ukraine and the messy formation of a government that seemed to represent a throwback to the days before the Orange Revolution in Kiev.
Moreover, Mr. Bush had just suffered an epic political loss in the midterm elections, his comeuppance for failure in Iraq, in the view of many. Would he present himself at
Riga as duly chastened, at last acknowledging that the course he set out on lacks support not only abroad but also at home? Would he recast U.S. policy in a more circumspect light, scaling back the ambitions now that they have collided with hard reality?
He would not. A “values” speech is exactly what Mr. Bush gave in Riga. He recalled the history of Latvia and its fellow “captive nations” and noted that the NATO meeting there was a tribute to the spread of freedom: “A continent that was once divided by an ugly wall is now united in freedom. Yet the work of uniting Europe is not fully complete. Many nations that threw off the shackles of tyranny are still working to build the free institutions that are the foundation of successful democracies. NATO is encouraging these nations on the path to reform — and as governments make hard decisions for their people, they will be welcomed into the institutions of the Euro-Atlantic community.” Seven nations, including Latvia joined in 2002, and Mr. Bush looked forward to inviting Albania, Croatia and Macedonia to join two years hence and reiterated U.S. support for Georgia and Ukraine.
He turned then to the Middle East, and against the background buzz of anticipation that the Baker-Hamilton commission would produce a recommendation advancing withdrawal from Iraq, he reiterated his commitment to stay as long as necessary. Again, he expressed his support in terms of values, drawing a distinction between the forces of moderation and the forces of extremism: “The question facing our nations today is this: Will we turn the fate of millions over to totalitarian extremists, and allow the enemy to impose their hateful ideology across the Middle East? Or will we stand with the forces of freedom in that part of the world, and defend the moderate majority who want a future of peace?”
He addressed such critics as my German friend head-on: “I know some in my country, and some here in Europe, are pessimistic about the prospects of democracy and peace in the
Middle East. Some doubt whether the people of that region are ready for freedom, or want it badly enough, or have the courage to overcome the forces of totalitarian extremism. I understand these doubts, but I do not share them. I believe in the universality of freedom. I believe that the people of the Middle East want their liberty. I’m impressed by the courage I see in the people across the region who are fighting for their liberty.”
You have heard some of this before, of course. It’s a variation on a theme, the Bush “freedom speech.” And you know what? He should keep giving this speech. His critics wouldn’t really like him any better even if he changed his tune. He obviously believes it. The message still has the capacity to inspire, as he proved in Riga. And his presidency is vested not only in the actuality of Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in the aspiration he gives voice to.
If the Middle East is ever the home of moderate, democratic politics, Mr. Bush will be remembered for seeing that possibility and seeking to act on it, however difficult it was. And if not, your grandchildren are going to have too much else on their hands to worry over much about Mr. Bush.