The American Interest

A Turbulent Layman

If you did not know beforehand that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadine-jad was one of the most important men in the most neuralgic region of the world—and, by extension, in the world itself—you’d never have guessed it.  One of the few things he has in common with President George W. Bush is a forgettable face.  In both cases, the bland façade conceals men of simple but deep convictions with a millenarian streak.  Both believe that their actions are divinely guided and that they are personally assisting history’s linear progression to a grand eschatological finale.

Their practical objectives are fundamentally different, however, and make a direct clash between them hard to avoid.

For all his lapses into utopian kitsch—democratizing the Middle East, leaving no child behind, etc.—in world affairs, Mr. Bush is, by now, a status quo politician.  Like Asquith’s Liberals before 1914, or Brezhnev’s successors a quarter of a century ago, he pays lip service to the buzz of a changing world while knowing that any real change would entail the weakening of his country’s relative power.  Mr. Bush would like to return to the international order as it had been in the years immediately preceding September 11: a unipolar system justified by the neoliberal ideology of democracy, human rights, and free markets, in which America could respond...

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