Perhaps the Bush administration has not been radical enough.
This is a heretical thought, of course. Politicians and pundits of various stripes are all agreed that a surfeit of unrealistic idealism is among the main reasons why Mr. Bush is at his current low ebb.
Yet when it comes to the one epic ambition of the Bush presidency—the spreading of democracy around the world—the opposite is the case.
The administration, more often than not, has compromised on its professed principles, backing away from the risk-taking that its rhetoric demanded.
“Freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul,” Mr. Bush said in his second inaugural address.
He was right about that. But the trouble with lofty rhetoric is that you need to live up to it. The democracy agenda has long since stalled, mired in a combination of confusion, contradiction and stasis.
Mr. Bush seems to be aware of this. A Washington Post article on Monday revealed that at a meeting in Prague in June, he expressed empathy with an Egyptian opposition figure.
“I too am a dissident in Washington,” Mr. Bush reportedly told Saad Eddin Ibrahim. “Bureaucracy in the United States does not help change.”
Mr. Bush cannot shirk responsibility for his administration’s failures quite that neatly, however.
The truly bold idea at the heart of his second inaugural was that American interests would be served by the spread of freedom.
“The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” Mr. Bush said.
This was both an admirable idea and a defensible one. What Mr. Bush did not make explicit, however, was that there would obviously be tension in the short term between such lofty sentiments and American strategic interests.
His doctrine would succeed only if the U.S. was prepared to push through these immediate difficulties in pursuit of a more profound transformation down the tracks.
This is precisely what it has failed to do. Mr. Bush’s grand claims have been gradually supplanted by a grimy accommodation with the realities of realpolitik.
Iraq, of course, is a huge part of this picture. The long, dreadful slide into chaos of a nation that was supposed to be both exemplar and foundation stone of a new Middle East has drained the Bush project of credibility. Where once there were hopes of democracy flowering and flourishing, now there are endlessly dialed-down expectations and uneasy alliances between U.S. troops and local militias.
Elsewhere, there were other opportunities for the U.S. to display a commitment to, and a respect for, the democratic choices of other peoples.
They were squandered.
The most obvious example came in the Palestinian territories. There, the U.S. initially—and rightly—decided that it should not seek to postpone elections in early 2006. Hamas emerged the winner.
The administration might have seized the moment to engage the Islamic movement, the better to gauge its willingness to compromise. Hamas’ participation in the elections was, in itself, a softening of its previous stance, in which such contests were derided as products of the Oslo Accords. To give respect to the Palestinian people’s right to self-government would also have fundamentally shaken up regional perceptions of the U.S.
It didn’t happen. The U.S. immediately sought to isolate Hamas. The contortions of the administration continue to this day, as it seeks to square a supposed commitment to democracy with the sidelining of a democratically elected leadership.