Dubya’s Good Fortune
The Italian political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli (he of the misused term “Machiavellian”), argued that success in leadership depended on the specific combination of two factors: virtu and fortuna. Virtu referred to the “virtuous” qualities individual leaders brought to bear on their decision-making: wisdom, sagacity, compassion, strength, resolve, vision and equanimity. Fortuna referred to “fate:” luck, happenstance, coincidence, externalities and events that could not be controlled and were often unforeseen. It was in the leader’s response to the vicissitudes of fate that his virtue—and more importantly his success—were measured.
No one has experienced the kind hand of fate more intensely than George W. Bush. Beyond the silver spoon that he was born with, or the 2000 election that he won while losing the popular vote, the US president has again seen fortune smile upon him during the last six months.
In a presidential campaign that was his to lose, George W. Bush played on popular concerns with security and traditional values to defeat an erstwhile war hero and centrist Democrat, John Kerry, in spite of the lack of visible progress in the war on terror and ongoing domestic economic woes. If his victory was as much the result of excellent political engineering on the part of his key advisors, particularly campaign strategist Karl Rove (the Machiavelli of the Bush administration), it was its aftermath where the role of fortune came most heavily to play.
Having been re-elected, Bush purged his administration of moderates like Colin Powell and installed a team of ideological loyalists in key policy-making positions, including Condolezza Rice as Secretary of State. Rather than see his 3 percentage point victory as a cautionary sign, Bush saw it as a mandate the reaffirmed and rewarded his vision of the world. The international community was thereby put on notice that there would be another four years of the Bush approach to global issues.
Then fate stepped in. A month after the election Yassir Arafat died. The US and Israel probably knew of his terminal condition and prepared accordingly, so that the stage was set for a complete revamping of the relationship with Arafat’s successors. It is a sorry measure of the man that not only was he denied burial in his chosen place of rest, or that many dignitaries snubbed his funeral, but that the prospects for peace between Israel and Palestine increased dramatically before the soil had settled on his coffin.
Within the space of a few weeks elections were held in which a moderate faction gained majority control over the Palestinian Authority, followed by Israel’s announcement that it was handing over the Gaza Strip and destroying several Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Although sporadic militant terrorist attacks continue and conservative Jewish settlers are outraged, the momentum has clearly shifted to the dealmakers turned peacemakers, and away from the hooded guys with the guns.
In late January, against great odds, a foundational election was held to establish the first Iraqi-based post-Saddam government. Charged with writing a new national constitution and holding national elections late this year, the Shiia and Kurdish coalition that will dominate the 275 seat National Assembly represents a break with decades of Sunni domination and is the first attempt at leadership selection via electoral means in five decades.
The vote may have been the most expedient way of ending the occupation rather than an affirmation of democratic sentiment, but it is step in a positive direction. There is still a long road to haul in Iraq before it is truly free and sovereign, but the faint glimmer of hope for eventual peace has been raised amid the ongoing violent resistance of die-hard Baathists, Sunni militants and Islamicist jihadis.
This followed by a few months the holding of the first post-Taliban Afghan national elections, which saw women restored to the vote and a moderate, secular and pro-Western government installed in office. Although problems with warlords, terrorists and poppy growers remain, the nation-building exercise in Afghanistan continues apace under UN command, and a return to the days of the Taliban grows more remote by the day.
More recently, the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri provoked such popular outrage against the Syrian occupation forces that the withdrawal of those troops is not an issue of if but when. The Assad regime is being held responsible for that bombing and a later one in Tel Aviv, and it is clear that it is now well in the target sights of the US administration.
With Israel to the west and US and allied coalition forces on the Syria-Iraq border, and with other countries joining the chorus for a troop withdrawal, the Syrians are feeling the squeeze and showing signs of buckling (seen in their handing over of Saddam Hussein’s half-brother and former Baghdad intelligence chief, number 36 on the infamous deck of cards of most wanted Baathist fugitives, to Iraqi security authorities after months of providing him safe haven).
The ripple effects have begun to extend to Egypt, where president Hosni Murbarak has called for multiparty elections after two decades of authoritarian rule. Saudi Arabia has just held its first local body elections, and its Shiite minority are beginning to claim civil rights never before recognized in the kingdom. Iran is feeling the pressure as well, although its mullahs are as blind as the Shah was to the need to co-opt and reform rather than repress local calls for change in the political system. In a diplomatic shift, Libya has renounced its nuclear weapons ambitions and re-engaged with the West, even if still under Quaddafi’s quixotic rule.
The sea change has flowed through the Ukraine and Georgia, and it continues to wash over other corners of the former Soviet Union. It has begun to be felt in Indonesia and Malaysia, although both countries are a very long way off from the democratic ideal. Even Russia has received a Bush lecture on the perils of authoritarian regression. Could all of this political movement just be a matter of fortuitous circumstance?
Perhaps, but here is where the Bush administration’s purported virtues come into play. Left without the original rationales for invading Iraq and still bearing the majority costs of the occupation, continuing to provide security for the Afghan government while chasing down Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants, and confronted by wide-spread criticism of its original foreign policy, the Bush administration has, by design or by chance, turned to the rationale that even its most idealistic ideologues only dared dream about prior to 2001: global promotion of democracy (or at least pro-Western secular and elected governments with capitalist beliefs). It is interesting to note that the US has championed this cause most ardently in Arab secular authoritarian states, and has opted to soft-peddle its pro-democracy critique in the oil monarchies and theocracies. After all, there are limits to moral imperatives. More importantly, in secularity there is nascent political space for democratic sentiment to grow, something that is far more difficult to find under theocratic absolutism.
Equally interesting is that in pushing for global democracy the Bush administration has taken up the mantle of his political hero, Ronald Reagan. In the 1980s the Reagan administration used its battle against the “evil” Soviet Empire to claim responsibility for the transitions from authoritarian to democratic regimes that swept Central and South America, Eastern Europe, the Philippines, South East Asia and South Africa. It mattered little to the Reagan ideologues that most of the authoritarians being swept out of office were pro-US and driven out by grassroots domestic sentiment rather than external pressure. What mattered was that they could claim responsibility at the moment these events occurred just by voicing approval. For them, as for the Bush administration, timing is everything, and appearances matter most. More importantly, by throwing official support behind democratization efforts in a variety of countries, the US made them a fait accompli. Under the aegis of fighting another axis of evil, it is again doing so.
As before, most of the thirst for self-rule and political voice evidenced in the latest rush to elections and calls for political “opening” comes from within, not without so-called failed and rogue states. The US administration has capitalized on the trend by lending its support to the cause while modifying its rhetoric of go-it alone diplomacy and unilateral military preemption. The embrace of democracy, if cynically played as a foreign policy initiative and increasingly at odds with US domestic political behavior, has now become a cornerstone of the new Bush Doctrine.
Fate may have dropped the travails of tyrants into his lap, but President Bush deserves credit for forcing their hand after 9/11. That unhappy day gave him the opportunity to re-make the world in his own vision, and Iraq and Afghanistan became the bloodstained sounding boards in which his intent became known. That intent has now been translated into military and diplomatic pressure on targeted states. Some will claim that the cost of this effort has been too high, but many others will feel that it is ultimately worth it.
The outcome of this fourth wave of authoritarian regime transition (following Southern Europe in the 1970s, Latin America in the 1980s and Eastern Europe and elsewhere in the late 1980s and early 1990s) is still uncertain and always reversible, much in the way the shift to neoliberal economic policies in the 1990s has given way to left-center politics throughout South America in the 2000s. But it has left an indelible impact on the countries in which it has taken place, and cast a long shadow over remaining authoritarians in the Middle East and elsewhere. Strategic rationales will factor into how these die-hards are treated in the near future, and at the end of the day it is up to homegrown democrats to take advantage of the window of opportunity provided by the Bush Doctrine. Some dictators will survive. But at least the logjam that was the political status quo in the Arab world has been broken.
As luck would have it, George W. Bush was in the right place at the right time, with the personal and ideological attributes and advisors to impose a vision born as a defensive reaction to the horrors of 9/11, standing at the helm of the one country that can at present act largely alone to force global change. Critics may be reluctant to admit it, and the overall outcome of the application of the new Bush Doctrine may be an open question, but the hard fact is that Helen Clark was right: under Al Gore things would have not panned out this way, for reasons of fate as well as of virtue. For better or worse, that has been Dubya’s good fortune.
Paul G. Buchanan is the Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland.