In his second inaugural address, President George W. Bush pledged that "[a]ll who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know the United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you." And not only in spirit: "We will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary."
One imagines that foreign opposition leaders have been encouraged and invigorated by those words coming from the leader of the free world. If I were a rabble rouser in, say, Egypt or Kyrgyzstan I probably would be.
But does the president really mean it?
The American government has a long and sometimes shameful history of encouraging opposition groups only to stand by and watch tanks or helicopters mow them down. In 1956, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles pledged to the opposition in Hungary that "[t]o all those suffering under Communist slavery, let us say you can count on us." Push came to shove, and we stood aside as thousands of Hungarians were slaughtered.
In 1991, during the first Iraq War, the first Bush administration pursued a "murky" policy by encouraging the Shiite Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein, but never overtly pledging U.S. assistance. President George Herbert Walker Bush simply advocated that "the Iraqi people should put Saddam aside." The policy backfired. Helicopters flew, Shiites were slaughtered, and the Bush policy was roundly denounced as morally bankrupt.
Now Bush II has pledged in an open forum that "[a]ll who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know... [w]hen you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you." There's a reason hardliners were ecstatic after Bush's speech: They think they have him cornered.
Neoconservatives don't think that it's the combination of encouragement and backpedaling that's shameful—just the backpedaling. If Bush agrees with the notion that he should encourage and back up opposition groups by force of arms, it's a reckless policy. If he's perpetuating the legacy of broken promises, it's a disgrace.
Imagine first that the president meant what he said. If the protests in Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan heat up, or if Egyptian democrats are squashed by the Mubarak regime, or if Taiwan decides to declare its independence, the United States will "defend our friends by force of arms." What will that look like? What will the costs be? How will other nations respond? Will it even serve the national interest?
Bush's followers will complain, "Well, of course he doesn't mean it everywhere, all the time, just when we can where we can." But when can we and where can we? Bush has expanded the National Endowment for Democracy, which helps opposition groups across the globe. It provides training, funds, and other support to them. It sure seems like those working with the NED are probably our "friends," no? If they decide it's time for action and march into the streets, will the course of U.S. foreign policy be determined by their actions?
Imagine conversely that Bush didn't really mean it. It was a throwaway speech, a chance to rattle on about lofty principle and encourage the democracy promotion project we've started in Iraq. Imagine he intends to adhere to realpolitik with countries where we have an interest in stability.
Isn't that the worst of both worlds? Bold pronouncements and faltering action? Is it right to encourage and fund opposition groups, to pledge openly that the United States will stand with them, and then to step aside when it matters?
Take, for example, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. What would have happened if the Orange Revolution had turned violent?
It almost did, and it would have been awful. In The New York Times, C.J. Chivers told the fascinating story behind how bloodshed was averted. Ukraine's interior ministry was mobilized and prepared to press thousands of armed troops into Independence Square to squash the protests. Heroically, members of the Ukrainian army and Ukraine's Security Service ran a counteroffensive, leaking incriminating information to the press and eventually informing the interior ministry that the army and Security Service were "on the side of the people, and [would] defend the people, and that the [interior ministry would] have to deal not only with unarmed people and youth it if [came] to Kiev, but with the army."
If another Orange Revolution happened today, and if it came to violence, what would the United States do?
In the wake of Bush's inaugural, it seems that we'll either "defend our friends by force of arms" or else sell them out. At the end of the Cold War, we got away with only sending David Hasselhoff. As it stands now, we're on course for either more war or more betrayal. Either way, that's unfortunate.