Michael Gerson, the chief Bush speechwriter who is now a Washington Post columnist, recently discussed his book Heroic Conservatism (HarperOne, 2007) with Marvin Olasky and with professors and students at The King's College, New York City. Edited excerpts are in the Jan. 12 issue of WORLD; here are additional excerpts concerning foreign policy issues.
WORLD: Are heroic conservatism and neo-conservatism similar?
MG: On the foreign policy side there's some overlap. I make a strong case for the promotion of democracy as an ideological alternative to bitterness and terror. America ultimately benefits from the spread of a liberal (small "L") order in the world. Free trade, self-government, rule of law, protection of basic rights. This is, I think, the mainstream of American foreign policy tradition. There's a confluence here between American interests and values. When we promote these values abroad it actually serves our interests.
WORLD: How are the heroics and neos different?
MG: Think of impoverished parts of the world as being also a growing threat in this kind of globalized age to the American people. You find many problems gather: it's almost like an abandoned house in the neighborhood that becomes a crack house.... In these circumstances American interests are served by aggressively promoting development and fighting disease.
Student: Democracy and Islam, do you see them as being in conflict?
MG: Islam, as I see it, has very little tradition (maybe no tradition) of distinction between human law and divine law. That's a challenge. But rulers are not supposed to be absolute rulers - they are also in submission to the divine law. They're supposed to rule through consultation with various elements and forces within society.
WORLD: Is Turkey an example?
MG: There you had a military regime impose a secular order. I don't think that's going to be a realistic model for the rest of the Middle East. It's a difficult long-term challenge, but even in a country like Afghanistan we found tribal representation and consensus government. It was not a completely totalitarian tradition.
Student: What about Egypt?
MG: Mubarak has systematically eliminated any kind of pluralistic opposition in the country, and that has forced all opposition into the radical mosque. That's the only other institution where people can gather and express their discontent to a regime that has done very little for the people, that's done mainly good at maintaining its own power. Mubarak says it's me or the Islamists. Well, you've gotten rid of everybody else. You don't have a political tradition that allows dissent to be channeled into other ways....
Professor: What can be done in Africa, given corrupt local governments?
MG: There are ways around corrupt local governments. You have to be creative. I've been to Kenya and seen how we do drug distribution there. We don't use the government services. We buy through the Christian/Catholic hospital system. We work directly with the community groups.
Student: What is AIDS intervention doing in Africa? Has abstinence gone out the door?
MG: My experience in Africa was that the closer you get to these problems, the less relevant some of our culture war debates seem. The best charities that I have visited are idealists about human potential, with high standards, and realists about human nature: they deal with people exactly where they are. When I asked a very strong Christian pastor in Cape Town his approach to these issues, he said, "You know, when we talk with eleven and twelve year olds we talk about how fulfilling marital commitment is and how important it is to wait for sexual activity. And we also deal with sex workers, and in those circumstances we give them condoms."
Student: Does "Heroic Conservatism" concerning foreign aid speak to both Christians and secularists?
MG: Blue-collar Democrats tend to be very opposed to foreign aid. They want the first dollar spent on education, healthcare, and other things. People with higher education within the Democratic Party tend to be more open. Within the Republican Party, the people who are most open to foreign assistance are religious conservatives. The people who are least open to it are secular conservatives. They are deeply skeptical that government can ever really do good - that this money is ever well spent - and have very little interest in the issues.