by &William Kristol

Originally published in the Weekly Standard, December 1, 2003

WHEN GEORGE W. BUSH first entered the White House, the conventional wisdom was that his inexperience and lack of vision in foreign policy would be compensated for by his wise and experienced cabinet. This may or may not have been a reasonable view at the time. Right now, however, it is clear that the most visionary and, yes, the wisest and most capable foreign policy-maker in the Bush administration is the president himself. Let's hope the team around him proves willing and capable of fulfilling his clear and historic grand strategy.

This past week has been an extraordinary one for the president. His visit to Great Britain, portrayed by the press beforehand as an impending disaster, was instead a resounding success. The spectacle of anti-Bush and anti-American protesters had a predictable effect on a sensible British public. Polls in Britain show rising support for the war in Iraq and a growing appreciation for the role played by the United States in the world. Bush's speech in London won well-deserved praise even from European critics--more so, actually, than from many of his American critics, who have long since abandoned the pretense of objectivity.

Bush struck exactly the right balance in reaching his hand across the Atlantic and seeking cooperation in the war on terrorism, but without pulling back from his own determination to wage that war forcefully. He began to dispel the label of unilateralism that has been unfairly pinned on him, while still asking Europeans to wake up to the realities of a dangerous world they have been trying so hard to ignore. Bush might be well advised to give more such speeches in Europe. (We have stopped expecting his secretary of state actually to go to European capitals to make the case for the president's policies.)

In his London speech, the president continued to advance what has come to be the centerpiece of his global grand strategy--the promotion of liberal democracy abroad, and especially in the Middle East, where freedom has been most wanting and where the West's record has been most dismal. This was the third speech in less than nine months in which the president made the promotion of democracy his central theme (the first being his speech at the American Enterprise Institute back in February before the Iraq war began, the second his speech to the National Endowment for Democracy earlier this fall). There can no longer be any doubt that whatever Republican "realist" inclinations the president may have inherited from his father and his father's advisers when he took office, he has now abandoned that failed and narrow view and raised the torch previously held high by Ronald Reagan--and before that by John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman.

In this respect, Bush has broken from the mainstream of his party and become a neoconservative in the true meaning of the term. For if there is a single principle that today divides neoconservatism from traditional American conservatism, it is the conviction that the promotion of liberal democracy abroad is both a moral imperative and a profound national interest. This is a view of America's role in the world that has found little favor in the Republican party since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. Reagan was a modern exception--the product, no doubt, of his own roots as a Truman Democrat--but this aspect of Reaganism was largely abandoned by Republicans after 1989. And so we are not surprised to see traditional Republican conservatives, of whom there is no more esteemed intellectual spokesman than George Will, now denouncing the supposed folly of such ambitious ventures. Nor are we surprised that in Bush's own cabinet, neither his secretary of state nor his secretary of defense shares the president's commitment to liberal democracy, either in Iraq or in the Middle East more generally. Indeed, the only thing that surprises us, a little, is the failure of American liberals--and European liberals--to embrace a cause that ought to be close to their hearts.

Liberals and conservatives alike these days seem willing to consign the Arab peoples to more decades of tyranny. "The West," argues Fareed Zakaria, "must recognize that it does not seek democracy in the Middle East--at least not yet." President Bush rejects this counsel. "In the West," Bush noted in London, "there's been a certain skepticism about the capacity or even the desire of Middle Eastern peoples for self-government. . . . It is not realism to suppose that one-fifth of humanity is unsuited to liberty. It is pessimism and condescension, and we should have none of it."

What has also become clear this past week is that Bush is determined to promote democracy in Iraq--and right now. This is a significant step forward. Up until recently, senior Bush officials have tended to avoid using the word "democracy" to describe the goals of American policy. In the Pentagon and elsewhere it has been thought that this sets the bar too high and implies a lengthy American commitment to Iraq, a commitment of money, energy, and troops. The most urgent task, as Donald Rumsfeld and General John Abizaid have been inclined to see it, has been to bring the levels of U.S. forces in Iraq down and turn over the task of security to the Iraqis as quickly as possible. Others in the administration have adopted the familiar argument that the Iraqi people are not yet ready for democracy and have tried to push any real elections as far into the future as possible.

President Bush this week slammed the door on this kind of thinking. First, he set the bar for success high: democracy. The new plan for a handover of sovereignty to the Iraqis calls for regional caucuses to elect a transitional legislature by next May, with general elections planned for the end of 2005. We would prefer to see the elections moved up, but even under the current schedule Iraqis will have a chance to begin participating in democratic politics almost immediately. That is a giant step toward the goal and the commitment that Bush articulated this past week: The United States "will meet our responsibilities in Afghanistan and Iraq by finishing the work of democracy we have begun."

So much for exit strategies. Bush has made it clear that the only exit strategy from Iraq is a victory strategy, with victory defined as "democracy." "We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq and pay a bitter cost of casualties and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins. We will help the Iraqi people establish a peaceful and democratic country in the heart of the Middle East." That commitment may turn out to be the most important of Bush's presidency, perhaps the most important of the post-Cold War era.

The second significant point Bush made in London was about troop levels in Iraq. In response to a question about beginning to bring home troops from Iraq next year, the president could not have been clearer. The United States will provide the troops necessary in Iraq. "We could have less troops in Iraq, we could have the same number of troops in Iraq, we could have more troops in Iraq, whatever is necessary to secure Iraq." Unfortunately, Bush's senior advisers treated his remark as if it were a gaffe and immediately began backgrounding reporters that there was no chance of a troop increase next year. That was an appalling error, signifying just how little the president's own advisers understand what's at stake in Iraq.

The president, we are happy to say, does understand. "The failure of democracy in Iraq," he said this week, "would throw its people back into misery and turn that country over to terrorists who wish to destroy us." Failure in Iraq is unacceptable. Al Qaeda and international terrorists "view the rise of democracy in Iraq as a powerful threat to their ambitions. In this, they are correct. They believe their acts of terror against our coalition, against international aid workers and against innocent Iraqis will make us recoil and retreat. In this, they are mistaken." Progress toward democracy is imperative. If that means more American troops are needed, then the administration should not--and we are now confident will not--flinch from putting in more troops, even in an election year.

The president made great progress this week explaining his vision and strategy to the world. He has placed himself at the level of Reagan and Truman, both of whom were also treated with derision by their opponents. Bush's great task now will be to explain his strategy to his own cabinet and commanders and insist that they begin implementing it.

--Robert Kagan & William Kristol