CSAD Day One: George Bush Is A Leninist, And Democracy Promotion Is Hard


With CSAD’s conference well underway, a synopsis of discussions featuring Zalmay Khalilzad, Tony Smith and Elliott Abrams.

  • Remaking nations in America’s image isn’t going to be easy. That much is obvious.

  • Promotion of American democracy assumes that the spread of such ideals is in our nation’s moral and political interest. Even though Professor Karako mentioned America as a “passive exemplar” to the rest of the world, apart from Tony Smith I doubt any participants at this conference are Isolationists.
  • Elliott Abrams saw 9/11 as a manifestation of the closed, anti-democratic nature of Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations. In his view, governmental repression abroad makes America more likely to be attacked; thus, spreading freedom and democracy is America’s best line of defense. An interesting argument, although calling political terrorism a result of the host nation’s lack of democracy seems like a slick way to get America’s policies off the hook.
  • Abrams’ argument characterizes the neoconservative movement and George Bush’s freedom agenda. Here capitalism comes into play, as free markets plugged into the global economy can spur the exchange of cultural capital and temper extremists.
  • Abrams also proposed a switch from non-governmental organization and civil society promotion to actual policy implementation. He argued that political will for change cannot just be a grassroots movement. The people at the highest levels of government need to be involved as well. To really promote democracy in any meaningful sense, we can’t soak nations with money, rather we have to make principled stands to the leaders of these nations. Carrots and sticks, so to speak.
  • For forty-five entertaining and eye-opening minutes, Tony Smith contextualized the past one hundred years of American foreign policy through baptist theology. He also called George Bush a Leninist. I owe it to Smith to put the comment in context. If I understood him correctly, George Bush is a Leninist in that both he and Lenin were “activists”: both subscribed to all-encompassing ideologies that sought to remake the world according to their optimal image;  and, according to Smith, history blew up in both men’s faces. He said the neoconservative project “push[ed] history before history was ready to be pushed.” It is interesting to note that many of the progenitors of the neoconservative movement were Trotskyists and Communists in their youth. Their ideologies swung from left to right, but the activist impulse always remained.
  • Smith argued that George Bush pushed America too deep into the world’s business, or as Professor Karako put it, America “sallied forth” too far from its hill. Smith contrasted America’s democracy promotion after World War I with where we are now. The charter of the League of Nations was a covenant between like-minded nations. In Smith’s mind, Bush’s unilateralism pushed that covenant too far and corrupted its legacy.
  • Finally, Zalmay Khalilzad spoke on democracy promotion from the unique perspective of an ambassador to both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a primary architect of both nations’ constitutions. The speech was packed with information, and I’ve yet to develop a succinct opinion of it. Needless to say, democracy promotion is complicated. Really complicated.

5 comments on “CSAD Day One: George Bush Is A Leninist, And Democracy Promotion Is Hard”

  1. “Elliott Abrams saw 9/11 as a manifestation of the closed, anti-democratic nature of Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations.”


    This is like the father in *My Big Fat Greek Wedding*, spraying Windex on everything as a cure-all. Abrams could have saved everyone time if he just stood up and said, “Democracy makes everything better. Thank you.” And then sat down.

    Sounds like Smith was closer to the pulse. It’s not surprising that a Kenyon student had to have Smith slow it down for him, because it’s not popular in Gambier to point up the Leftist logic of Bush’s neoconservative outlook. It makes the dissonance too strong, and anyway it’s hard to lock people into empty, routinized Left/Right conflict if it begins to look as if there actually are two Lefts. For whatever reasons, cynical or no, this idea is not strongly cultivated at Kenyon. We tried to work it into TKO while I was there but it didn’t seem to generate much comment or interest.

    To me Bush looks more like a Trotskyite, or a Jacobin, but it all runs together. When I was an undergraduate I was annoyed that professors and students didn’t take more interest in this line of thought since it seemed so evident, requiring a wilfull act of avoidance to ignore. A good discussion can be found in the work of Claes Ryn: http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig5/ryn1.html

    1. I’m not sure that it’s cognitive dissonance so much as it is strangely logical. The leftist roots of neo-conservatism is not a topic I’ve ever had broached to me, at Kenyon or anywhere else. I don’t think my surprise at hearing Smith’s comment is a Kenyon specific issue. He also didn’t ‘slow down’ for me or anyone else at the talk – the power of the idea meant that I wanted to make sure I got the jist of it correct before characterizing it in my post.

      1. Understood.

        Both the Left and (neoconservative) Right have an interest in declining to broach this topic. The neoconservatives aim to displace the authentic Right, and in this pursuit the Left supports them, since it helps truncate the dialogue and establish neoconservatism as the rightmost limit of respectability. It then becomes more difficult to imagine non-liberal possibilities and easier to depict dissent as mere fascism or Nazism or whatever.

  2. Pingback: Work | Gabriel Rom

Share a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s