Thursday, March 24, 2016

Quotable: Jay Nordlinger’s interview with George W. Bush

Wednesday, March 23rd 2016
Jay Nordlinger of National Review wrote five “impromptus” after visiting former President George W. Bush in Texas.  They appeared as five articles that ran on the magazine’s website from March 14-18, 2016. 

In the normal cycle of American politics, when a new president comes from the other political party, words of praise or appreciation for the previous incumbent are few.  President Bush, moreover, has largely kept out of the public eye since he left office.  In the interviews with Nordlinger, Bush43 looked back on his administration and discussed his continued belief in the animating power of freedom.

Public Diplomacy practitioners will be interested to learn of the international agenda of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, located at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.  Underlying every Public Diplomacy program are concepts of American freedoms, so a look back at the “freedom agenda” of the Bush administration – given expression in his second inaugural address – is surely helpful.

Of the five impromptus, Part I gives the best look at the Public Diplomacy activities of the Bush Center, featuring a visit by Sudan’s “Lost Boys.”  In Part II the President reflects on his second inaugural address and the “freedom agenda.  Japan, South Korea, and the issue of political prisoners are discussed in Part III.  Saudi Arabia, Hosni Mubarak, the Nobel Prize, the Holocaust, and Saddam Hussein are main topics in Part IV.  The subjects of Part V include PEPFAR, Vietnam, China, and Vladimir Putin.

Here are just a few quotes:

[Tahrir Square]

  • . . . these young people from Tahrir Square, who had protested in the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 . . . . “They were full of vim and vigor. They were, like, on top of the world. These were very well educated people who had spent a lot of time in Tahrir Square and were part of the group that toppled Mubarak” . . . . “The first question I asked them was, ‘Are you going to try to reconcile? Are you going to understand that the toppled power structure ought to be treated with sympathy?’ And the answer was no. They wanted revenge. I didn’t argue with them. I just thought it was a mistake. I thought that the Mandela model would be better for healing society.”

  • The Egyptian students certainly wanted help: help from Bush, help from the United States, help period. “What was apparent to me,” says Bush, “was that a closed society has no freedom bench.” (This is a sports metaphor, for those who might be curious.)

  • “There are no people who can come and say, ‘I want to seize this moment.’” In Egypt, “there was no viable opposition except for one group: the Muslim Brotherhood. Therefore, when there was an election, I wasn’t surprised that the only organized opposition won, because these young people who had helped overthrow Mubarak had no understanding. They’re smart, they’re capable, they handled the negative [i.e., the toppling of the strongman], they just couldn’t figure out the positive, which is, What do we do?”

[South Korea and religious liberty]

  • Bush spoke to some 30,000 Christians in a soccer stadium. “I thought of Harry Truman,” says Bush. I ask why. “Because Harry Truman never saw the benefit of a free society in Korea. And yet here were people allowed to worship freely. And I then thought of the soldiers of the Frozen Conflict, many of whom had no clue what their sacrifices meant. And yet people were able to worship freely.

  • “You have to ask the question, ‘Does it matter to American interests that people in Korea can worship freely?’ I think it does. I think it not only upholds our values, but Korea is now a partner in peace, in what used to be a pretty bloody part of the world. “And so, you know, the basic themes and values of the inaugural speech are reconfirmed constantly for me.”

[Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, and the freedom agenda]

  • “The first thing you gotta do, working with anybody, is understand their problems. One of my favorite questions was, ‘What keeps you up at night?’ And then I would tell them, what kept me up at night was a terrorist attack.

  • “But His Majesty [King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia] understood the need for liberating his society. He was just at a pace that others just didn’t agree with. Nevertheless, I’ll never forget sitting and listening to him talk about the opening of a university where men and women study side by side. He was very proud of that. But he also gave me an in-depth description of how he had to navigate the power centers in Saudi.

  • “To me, there was no holding my nose when I was dealing with Saudi because I understood the difficulties.” A pivot: “Some of the leaders were disdainful of the freedom agenda. He wasn’t. [Meaning, Abdullah.] Just so long as one didn’t make public extraordinary demands. And I never did that, because I didn’t like it when people made public extraordinary demands on me, which was quite frequent.

[Soft power, hard power, diplomacy, coercive diplomacy]

  • If you’re the leader of Norway, you can do relatively little. You have “soft power,” as they say, but not much in the way of hard. If you’re the president of the United States, by contrast, you can do a lot: You have hard power. It must be something of a temptation to use it, to do good or counteract evil, I say. No, says Bush. It is not at all tempting. “Because it’s life-changing for many of the people you put in when you use the military, and therefore it’s the last resort, not the first.

  • “On the other hand, I believe in the power of coercive diplomacy, when you’re dealing with tyrannical figures. I believe that oftentimes diplomacy is an escape mechanism to kind of play out the clock, and therefore there had to be some muscle behind the diplomacy. There had to be consequences, and sometimes a sanction is a good consequence, but sometimes the military is an effective consequence.”

  • Bush says, “It’s interesting to think back to the reactions to the liberation of Iraq.” Yes, people were consumed with the question of WMD. “But I don’t remember any great joy in realizing that Iraqis had a chance to live outside of the brutality, outside of the brutality of rapists and thugs.” I tell Bush, “I always quote you on the question of WMD and the invasion of Iraq. You said, over and over, before we went in, ‘There are risks of action and risks of inaction. I have to weigh them.’”

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