December 2, 2003 | Wall Street Journal

Is Bush Selling Out?

Contrary to current wisdom, the fate of the free world does not hang entirely on whether America can transform the wreck that was Saddam's Iraq into a civilized nation. While Iraq is a critical arena, our future also depends, much more broadly, on how well the U.S. defends world-wide the democratic principles which President Bush has so wisely put forward in theory–but seems still so inconsistently willing to apply in practice.

The usual criticism, of course, is not that Mr. Bush needs to go much further, but that he has already gone too far. To judge by the rising chorus at the United Nations and in the Democratic Party, you'd think America these past two years had been on a global rampage of regime change, pre-empting murderous despots left and right, bouncing terrorist-sponsoring regimes out of their palaces and U.N. office suites, and generally re-arranging the world until it's all one great big democratic construction site and you can't even count on finding Fidel Castro at home anymore.

Hardly. In the past two years, the U.S. has directly knocked out just two of the world's more than two score atrocious tyrannies. Still standing, or in some cases strutting, are such regimes as Iran, now clearly cooking up nuclear bombs, and North Korea, now threatening to test, sell and use such weapons. Then there's Syria–where President Bashar Assad, while still occupying Lebanon and coddling terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, has been getting himself a pass as a cooperative fellow in the war on terror. In Saudi Arabia, the mafia clan known as the Saudi royal family goes right on funding Wahhabi terrorist schools while professing themselves shocked to discover terrorists on their own premises. In China, the dictators sip their tea, jail their critics, supply North Korea's Kim Jong Il, target more than 450 ballistic missiles on democratic Taiwan–and prepare for next week's visit by Premier Wen Jiabao to Washington, where he will be welcomed at the White House.

Meanwhile, there is a curious U.S. sellout afoot of our own most beleaguered democratic allies, Israel and Taiwan. I mention these two in particular because they embody precisely the kind of societies, and polities–surviving and even thriving in the face of serious threat–that we are at such pains now to praise in principle and try to engender in practice in Iraq. Would that Israel and Taiwan were receiving from Washington the kind of careful consideration and encouragement now being lavished upon the Iraqis.

Instead, Israel is told it must forgo even the building of a protective fence, and instead leave the roads open to Yasser Arafat's cult of bombs and blood. An “alternative” peace accord in Geneva, representing neither the democratic government of Israel nor any democratic leader of the Palestinians (there is currently no such person) gets not only a hallelujah from such dictator groupies as Jimmy Carter and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, but one from the State Department.

And Taiwan, home to the first Chinese democracy, has entered a stretch in which the National Security Council is preparing to outdo even the usually pro-Beijing State Department by savaging Taipei during Mr. Wen's visit next week. Taiwan has been considering a referendum next year on independence. This is objectionable to Beijing's regime, which in its entire 54-year history has never allowed a genuine national election, or referendum, on anything whatever. Word in Washington is that the NSC, eager to placate China, is now considering a shift from stated U.S. policy in which we “do not support” independence for Taiwan to a stance in which we “oppose” independence, and would condition arms sales to Taipei on the democratic government there not provoking Beijing.

These may sound like minor nuances; but in the delicate realm of diplomatic ambiguities that have allowed Taiwan's democracy to flourish, such changes would be a savage blow to Taiwan's democrats, and a sop not only to Beijing, but to dictators everywhere. The absurd hope in Washington seems to be that Beijing might reward a U.S. betrayal of Taiwan by yanking its support from North Korea and becoming a regime of slightly more tractable despots–at least for a few minutes. Don't hold your breath. The real result of offering up Taiwan to please China would be to encourage aggression against the U.S. and its allies, not just from Beijing, but from dictators worldwide who would doubtless take note.

Somewhere in the focus on Saddam Hussein's arsenal–and the endless palaver over whether his precise quantity and variety of munitions justified removing such a monster–an important point keeps getting lost. The problem lay not simply in Saddam's weapons, but in his gross disregard for civilized norms; in his willingness to cheat, lie, steal, kill and poison the global community with utterly immoral rules of conduct that undermined the entire code of decent behavior on which modern civilization, and any hope of peace, depends.

We are seeing in Iraq how brutally difficult it is to replace a Saddam ethos with the vast and often intangible web of trust and decency so vital to establishing true freedom and democracy. We have witnessed similar problems in much of the former Soviet Union, and we are far from done with the miseries and threats bred among its old disciples–including the missile-wielding dictatorships of China and North Korea, as well as the terrorist-wielding dictators of the Middle East.

One lesson we badly need to take from this scene is that in those places where democracy, in the face of terrible threats, and against huge odds, has established itself–in Israel's democratic outpost in the Middle East, in Taiwan's democratic flowering in the Chinese world–it is crucial that we yield no ground. A policy of appeasing current tyrants, the better to concentrate on Iraq to the exclusion of all else, may offer some in Washington an illusion of calm. But to nudge Israel yet again in the direction of the peace-at-any-price crowd, to even hint at offering up Taiwan's security in the absurd hope of placating China's politburo, is to embrace standards so frail that the result can only be to embolden our enemies and erode the very progress we are at such pains to achieve in Iraq.

Ms. Rosett is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute. Her column appears in the Opinion Journal and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.



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