War Stories

Give Me Liberty or Give Me… What?

The muddle in Bush’s inaugural address.

President Bush’s inaugural address today was a flimsy, shallow speech—eloquent, even graceful, but in the service of clichés and slogans, not ideas or policies. The theme was attractive: “freedom” and the necessity to spread it to around the world, not just for its own sake but to protect those who already enjoy it. Tyranny spawns resentment, hatred, and violence; freedom is the force of history that breaks tyranny. Therefore:

The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.

The template, clearly, was John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, which began, “We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom” and went on, more famously, “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

But George W. Bush is not John F. Kennedy and, more to the point, 2005 is not 1961. It is doubtful that even Kennedy’s words—so flush with idealism at the time—would have come off so stirringly had they been written, say, eight years later, at the height of the Vietnam War. They would have raised questions, set off alarm bells. And so should Bush’s paraphrasings in the middle of the present war in Iraq.

At least Kennedy made no bones of the fact that his crusade would carry a “price,” impose a “burden,” inflict “hardship,” and continue to require sacrifice through (as he put it later in the speech) “a long, twilight struggle.” Where in President Bush’s speech was there any such recognition, any plea for all citizens to ask what they can do for their country? There was one sentence where he urged young Americans, “Make the choice to serve in a cause larger than your wants, larger than yourself.” Just before this plea he saluted our soldiers, diplomats, and intelligence personnel. Was he suggesting these jobs—joining the military, the foreign service, or the CIA—comprise the full range of ways that we can (in JFK’s words) ask what we can do for our country? For the rest of us, he offered not the slightest hint of a proposal. In fact, immediately after his urging, he linked the advancement of America’s freedom with “the dignity and security of economic independence,” and then segued into a promotion for the privatization of Social Security—hardly a notion that fits the broader theme of one-for-all and the-world-is-one.

In any case, what is this thing called “freedom”? The speech did note, “America will not impose our own system of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.” But what if the freely expressed view of some downtrodden people happens to collide with our views or interests? Does “freedom” always mean a Western-style, or pro-American, democracy?

Whatever freedom is, how do we go about spreading it? The president said in his speech that the mission “is not primarily the task of arms,” though he added that sometimes it must be. If not with arms, then how do we spread freedom? With rhetorical encouragement? Bush’s answer was intriguing: “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.” The United States will also “encourage reform” in repressive governments “by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people. … Start on this journey of progress and justice,” President Bush told these rogue leaders, “and America will walk on your side.”

This sort of talk raises three questions. First, does the president really know what he’s saying here? In 1956, the Voice of America encouraged the rebels of Hungary to rise up against their Communist regime, and when they did so, they were mowed down; the United States did not come to their aid and had no ability to do so. In 1991, George Bush’s father encouraged the Shiite rebels of southern Iraq to rise up and overthrow Saddam Hussein, and after the Iraqi army was expelled from Kuwait and the war declared over, Saddam mowed down the rebels; the United States did not come to their aid. If the leaders of a democratic underground in some dictatorship hear this speech and rise up tomorrow against their own tyrants, will George W. Bush “stand with” them? Really?

Second, the United States does have good relations with several repressive governments—China, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, to name a few—and chooses to do little or nothing about the way they treat their own people. Good arguments are advanced for this double standard: We need China for trade, Saudi Arabia for its oil, Pakistan for its antiterrorist efforts. Officials, not just in this administration, have decided to overlook these countries’ human-rights records in order to preserve what they see as higher interests. We can argue about whether the trade-off is correct, but the existence of a trade-off is indisputable.

In his speech today, President Bush constructed a syllogism: (A) Spreading liberty reduces resentment, hatred, and violence in the world. (B) Resentment, hatred, and violence threaten our vital interests. Therefore, (C), as he puts it, “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.” But this is a clever evasion. If it wasn’t, then Bush would have cut off relations with a dozen or so governments, including all three of those mentioned above. He’s not doing that because he and the people around him know that the gesture would harm U.S. interests much more than it helped those countries’ dissidents, if in fact it helped them at all. At least since 1945, American statesmen have grappled with the dilemma between our interests and our ideals. To pretend that we’ve vanquished the dilemma—that our ideals and interests are monolithic and identical—is at best a delusion and at worst a hindrance to devising smart policies.

Third, can we undertake this mission to spread freedom all by ourselves? In his 1961 address, Kennedy emphasized the need for allies. Speaking to audiences around the world, he asked, “Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join us in that historic effort?” President Bush today had one short sentence on the subject: “All the allies of the United States can know: We honor your friendship, we rely on your counsel, and we depend on your help.” The key words are “counsel” and “help”—not “coalition” or “partnership.” We can barely afford fighting insurgents in Fallujah and Sadr City, much less spreading freedom to the darkest corners of the earth. Yet President Bush’s language suggests he still views allies as dispensable subordinates.

One could say that an inaugural address is an opportunity to express grand themes with broad brushstrokes, and shouldn’t be read closely as a blueprint for the future. But it is well known that many presidents—including this one—dwell on this speech with great care. Certainly the theme of President Bush’s address is consistent with the theme of his first term’s foreign policy. It therefore offers little hope that his second term’s will be formulated with any greater care.