By Gerard Baker (THE TIMES, 17/11/06):
The accursed power that stands on Privilege
(And goes with Women, and Champagne, and Bridge)
Broke — And Democracy resumed her reign
(Which goes with Bridge, and Women, and Champagne).
WHEN HE WROTE those lines Hilaire Belloc was casting a cynical eye on the supposedly great social transformation that was to be wrought by the Liberal triumph in the British general election of 1906. But his words are echoing rather loudly in Washington precisely 100 years later.
Last week the Democratic Party resumed its reign in a famous victory over the accursed conservatives, thanks in large part to popular anger at an apparently endless string of Republican corruption scandals.
This week the Democrats got off to an impressively early start in demonstrating that they are not be left behind when it comes to cupidity and venality. Nancy Pelosi, who will become the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives in January, chose a remarkable piece of turf for her first big fight. She tried, unsuccessfully, to foist on her unwilling Democratic colleagues as the second most powerful figure in the House a man who is, shall we say, at least as ethically challenged as anybody the Republicans managed to throw up these last ten years.
Congressman John Murtha has a long history of influence-peddling. He has adroitly channelled millions of dollars in public funds to friendly defence contractors who turn out to be big contributors to his own campaign coffers. If he had won yesterday’s election, Mr Murtha would have had the distinction of being the first House Majority leader to be filmed in an FBI sting weighing whether to take a bribe.
Undaunted by her narrow defeat, Ms Pelosi is preparing her next personnel decision, readying herself to confirm as head of the House Intelligence Committee another pillar of democracy, Alcee Hastings, a former judge who was impeached 20 years ago for misconduct involving bribery. How Belloc would have approved.
Of course the Democrats’ urgent quest to emulate their Republican predecessors in the ethics department is still only the second most interesting development since American politics was transformed last week. The main focus of attention continues to be the psychodrama that the media has decided will now determine the outcome of the war in Iraq.
Last week a beleaguered President George Bush replaced Donald Rumsfeld as Defence Secretary with Bob Gates, a key insider in the national security team of the first President Bush. This week the President sat down humbly to listen to the advice of the Iraq Study Group, led by James Baker, a key insider in the national security team of the first President Bush.
Spot the common trend? With the aid of a quick Google search on Oedipus and Hamlet, the herd of Washington commentators has rushed to clarify. The embattled and chastened Son is reaching desperately for help from the once despised and now much- needed Father. So Messrs Baker and Gates will now bring a maturity and realism to a foreign policy marked heretofore by a kind of adolescent idealism.
Forgive me if I fail to endorse this cod psychology. For one thing, the crazy young neocons Mr Bush supposedly surrounded himself with six years ago that he’s now having to dump were themselves all drawn from the same ranks of hard-headed mature realists we are now told surrounded his father. When he assembled his first national security team, Junior’s administration included Dick Cheney, his father’s Secretary of Defence, Condoleezza Rice, protégé of his father’s National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and Paul Wolfowitz, a veteran of the first Mr Bush’s Pentagon. Indeed virtually everyone to have served with Mr Bush these past six years — with the exception of Mr Rumsfeld — was an old friend of his father’s.
But I’ve a bigger problem with the Oedipus Wrecks story. It’s true now that most commentators are heaping praise on the first Bush Administration for its maturity and realism and contrasting it with the infantile idealism of his son’s. But the record of the Bush-Baker-Gates team deserves more scrutiny than this.
Was it realism that caused them at the end of that war to urge the Shia Arabs in southern Iraq to rise up against Saddam Hussein? Or was it maturity that caused them to abandon quickly those same Shia when they were mown down by Saddam’s stormtroopers (who were conveniently empowered by the decision of the Bush-Baker-Gates realists to let the Iraqi Army use its helicopters after it had been expelled from Kuwait)? Was it maturity or realism that led that same team, when Mikhail Gorbachev was ousted in a chaotic coup in 1991, not to denounce the plotters but to call for a measured transition to whatever might come next?
And do the free people of Eastern Europe today have the maturity of Mr Baker and Bush Senior to thank for their liberation from the Russian yoke? Or was it Bush’s realism that caused him to warn Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans in his infamous “Chicken Kiev” speech in 1991 against “suicidal nationalism” after the collapse of communism?
Of course the verdict of commentators these days is that the first President Bush somehow won the Cold War thanks to his hard-headed realism. But we surely shouldn’t overlook the supporting role played by Ronald Reagan for eight years before that, whose idealism — almost universally denounced as naive and adolescent — forced the Soviet Union to the brink of collapse and won the greatest struggle against tyranny of our lifetimes.
Idealism — sometimes naive but usually inspiring — has always guided American foreign policy. Whatever the truth behind the fierce little human drama being played out now inside the Bush family, it would be an awful shame if it were to be abandoned.