From the March 6 edition of the LA Times:
A 19th century critique of a 21st century president
Gladstone eviscerated British foreign policy under Disraeli in 1878-79. His arguments apply to Bush’s failures too.
By Niall Ferguson
ONE OF THE unintended consequences of the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — which prohibits anyone from being elected president more than twice — is that George W. Bush will never have to run on the record of his second term. This is fortunate for the Republican Party. It is a tragedy for the Democrats.
If President Bush were to run for reelection in 2008, it is not difficult to imagine the devastating indictment that might be made of his foreign policy. One reason is that the terms of such an indictment were brilliantly anticipated in Britain more than a century ago.
In 1878, William Ewart Gladstone came out of retirement to reclaim the leadership of the Liberal party and unleash a lethal rhetorical assault against his archrival, Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.
In a series of marathon speeches to crowds numbering in the tens of thousands, Gladstone eviscerated Disraelian foreign policy as a disastrous mixture of vainglorious imperialism, cynical realpolitik and fiscal improvidence. His speech of Nov. 27, 1879, in which he set out his principles of foreign policy, reads amazingly well today.
Gladstone’s first principle was, paradoxically, “good government at home” — to be precise, fiscal stability. “The first thing,” he argued, “is to foster the strength of the empire by just legislation and economy at home.” By that measure Bush’s second term has been an almost unqualified failure. To cut taxes and run deficits in 2001, in the aftermath of a stock market crash, made sense. But allowing the federal government to continue to run deficits with recovery well established has left the U.S. dangerously dependent on foreign capital for its economic stability.
Gladstone’s second principle was that the aim of foreign policy should be “to preserve to the nations of the world … the blessings of peace” — not something Bush will be remembered for achieving.
Principle number three reads especially well today. “Even when you do a good thing,” Gladstone observed, “you may do it in so bad a way that you may entirely spoil the beneficial effect.” Ring any bells? That’s just the way to nail this administration without falling into the obvious rhetorical trap of arguing that we should have left Saddam Hussein in power. Yes, you can indeed ruin the effect of doing a good thing — getting rid of a brutal, potentially dangerous dictator — by doing it in a bad way: failing to preserve public order in the aftermath.
Gladstone’s fourth principle was a very American one: To avoid needless and entangling engagements. “You may boast about them,” he went on, “you may brag about them…. But you are increasing your engagements without increasing your strength; and if you increase engagements without increasing strength, you diminish strength, you abolish strength.” Once again, spot on.
The coup de grace, however, is Gladstone’s fifth principle: to acknowledge the equal rights of all nations. “If you claim for yourself,” he said, “a pharisaical superiority over [other nations], then I say … [that] in undermining the basis of the esteem and respect of other people for your country, you are in reality inflicting the severest injury upon it.” I defy you to name another president whose conduct that better sums up. Indeed, the evidence is that this administration has more than merely undermined “the basis of the esteem and respect of other people.” It has blown it apart.
The beauty of Gladstone’s attack is that it was concentrated mainly on the execution of Disraeli’s policy. “The foreign policy of England,” Gladstone declared, “should always be inspired by the love of freedom.” That’s where a Democratic challenger can agree with Bush: We share your aspiration to spread freedom; it’s your implementation that stinks.
And yet it is highly unlikely that the next Democratic front-runner for the presidency will be able to deliver a modern version of Gladstone’s speech. Why? For the simple reason that, unless the Republicans have lost the will to win, they will select a candidate to succeed Bush who subscribes to every single one of Gladstone’s principles.
The Republicans would certainly be foolish to cling to what is left of Bush’s foreign policy. Nearly all of its premises are crumbling before our eyes. The theory of a democratic peace is a chimera; give Muslims the vote and they vote for militants. Regime change in Iraq has not enhanced American security; its principal beneficiary has been Iran. As for the unipolar world….
The reality is that the occupation of Iraq and its ramifications in the greater Middle East now so dominate this administration’s agenda that the one truly world-shaking event of our times — the resurgence of China — has all but vanished from view. The administration is in at least two minds about how to react, with half the signals indicating a new Cold War strategy of containment (why else help the Indians with their nukes?) and the other half continuing the older policy of conciliation.
After recklessness, ineptitude was the greatest defect of Disraelian foreign policy (although in those days it was the resurgence of Russia rather than China that was the big challenge).
Too bad the 22nd Amendment likely will prevent us from ever hearing a Gladstonian critique of today’s inept imperialism.