War Stories

Freedom’s Just Another Word

Bush’s deluded speech to the world’s oppressed.

George W. Bush

For those who have detected a “return to realism” in recent American foreign policy, President George W. Bush went to Prague today to say it isn’t so.

Speaking at a conference of democratic activists from around the world, Bush renewed his call for “the end of tyranny,” proclaimed that countries on the “path to freedom … will find a loyal partner in the United States,” and said to those suffering under tyranny, “We will never excuse your oppressors, and we will always stand for your freedom.”

The speech was, by Bush’s description, a reprise of the “freedom agenda” laid out in his Second Inaugural Address of January 2005—but without the slightest acknowledgement of the catastrophic failures and retreats that have taken place (nor of the conceptual fallacies that have been so clearly exposed) in the two and a half years since.

The Second Inaugural Address was widely considered utopian. Today’s Prague speech is, at best, delusional. “Freedom can be resisted, and freedom can be delayed, but freedom cannot be denied,” Bush said to applause. A noble notion, but no student of history or politics would seriously claim that it’s true.

Then again, if it were true, if—as Bush has said on numerous occasions—freedom is God’s gift and hence the natural state of mankind, then its flowering would be inevitable, and no mere mortal, not even the president of the United States, would have to lift a finger to make it so.

Which may explain why this godly president has done so little on the idea’s behalf.

“In the eyes of America,” Bush said in Prague, “the democratic dissidents of today are the democratic leaders of tomorrow. So we are taking new steps to strengthen our support for them.”

He listed the steps he’s taking: “We recently created a Human Rights Defenders Fund, which provides grants for the legal defense and medical expenses of activists arrested or beaten by repressive government.” He didn’t say so, but a State Department Web site notes that the fund contains $1 million. (That’s million, not billion.)

Another step: “I strongly support the Prague Document that your conference plans to issue, which states that ‘the protection of human rights is critical to international peace and security.’ ” That requires no sweat or risk.

Finally: “I have asked Secretary Rice to send a directive to every U.S. ambassador in an unfree nation: Seek out and meet with activists for democracy and human rights.” The question here is whether such activists will want to meet with the U.S. ambassador. Last year, when Rice asked Congress for $75 million to help democratic movements in Iran, the Iranian activists said that they didn’t want the money—that any association with American money would hurt their credibility and make them look like spies.

He added, a bit later in the speech, that the United States “has nearly doubled funding for democracy projects.” A White House fact sheet, e-mailed to me by a National Security Council press official, elaborates that Bush is requesting $1.5 billion in fiscal year 2008 for “Democracy, Governance, and Human Rights”—and that this sum is up from $700 million in 2001. It’s impossible to judge from budget documents (or even from a background interview I had with a “senior administration official”) where this money is going, and for what. It’s unclear whether this number is significant or not. (I’ll report further if and when I find out.)

Bush went on, “We are working with our partners in the G-8 to promote the rise of a vibrant civil society in the Middle East through initiatives like the Forum for the Future.” This is, famously, a forum with no teeth, obligations, or significant investment.

“We congratulate the people of Yemen on their landmark presidential election.” Ah, thank you, now how about some real assistance.

“And we stand firmly behind the people of Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq as they defend their democratic gains against extremist enemies.”

Let us examine that last paragraph. One big problem in Lebanon is that, at the start of last summer’s cease-fire, the Western leaders did nothing to help Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government build his authority in order to neutralize Hezbollah and stave off the influence of Syria and Iran.

As for Iraq, which “extremist enemies” is Bush talking about—the Sunnis that the Shiite militias are battling, the Shiite militias that the Sunnis are battling, the handful of foreign jihadists that both of those militias are sometimes battling, sometimes abetting? In other words, as he has so often in the past, Bush reduced a complex mixture of multiple sectarian conflicts and low-grade civil wars to a black-and-white struggle of freedom fighters versus terrorists.

At one point in his speech, he noted that some critics of his freedom agenda claim “that ending tyranny will unleash chaos,” citing the violence of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon. “But,” Bush said, in rebuttal, “look at who is causing that violence—it’s the terrorists.”

He has a point in Afghanistan—though even there, he fails to note how the Taliban have carved out a position, though opportunistically, in Afghan society. But in Lebanon, even if Hezbollah were the only force unleashing chaos, it must be recognized that they form not only an outlaw militia but also a popular political party with seats in the parliament. In other words, to see electoral democracy and terrorism as incompatible forces—much less to see electoral democracy as the cure for terrorism—is to misunderstand the dynamics of these societies.

Bush acknowledges that the Palestinian territories elected Hamas to power. But, he notes, “democracy consists of more than a single trip to the ballot box. Democracy requires meaningful opposition parties, a vibrant civil society, a government that enforces the law and responds to the needs of its people. Elections can accelerate the creation of such institutions.” (Italics added.)

He’s right—up until the last sentence. Democracy does require a whole complex of institutions. But elections don’t always accelerate their creation; often, especially if they’re held in the absence of such institutions, elections merely strengthen—and give political voice to—the most militant sectarian factions within a society.

Bush said much about the blossoming of democracies in Central and Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union declined and finally imploded. But those countries succeeded precisely because they had some experience with these sorts of institutions. Furthermore, in the context of the Cold War, their deep hatred of Soviet oppression instinctively drove them to the West—the Soviet Union’s foe—for aid and inspiration.

These circumstances have no relevance to the Middle East. Addressing members of the audience from the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe, Bush said, “The Afghan and Iraqi people look to you as a model of liberty.” But there’s no evidence that they do—and no reason that they would. There is no sign whatsoever of a Vaclav Havel or Natan Sharansky—nor of a Mikhail Gorbachev or Boris Yeltsin—in any Arab country today.

Finally, can anyone look at Bush’s policies—as opposed to his words—and infer that he is (as he described himself today) a “dissident president”? He said, “We will never excuse your oppressors … ” But he sends massive aid, including military aid, to Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia; he congratulates Kazakhstan for its political progress; and he holds a state dinner for the leader of Azerbaijan.

There are reasons for this support. The calculations behind these reasons may be correct in the scheme of things. But to say, “We will never excuse your oppressors” and “we will always stand for your freedom”—when it’s clearly the case that we don’t and we can’t—is to appear hypocritical. It makes the calculations of Realpolitik—which all big powers must play at times, even if reluctantly—appear more sordid than they need to. Worse still, it tarnishes those instances when we do act out of good conscience; it stirs doubts about ideals that we hold and express sincerely.

To George W. Bush, at a time of steady deterioration in America’s standing and credibility, freedom is just another word for nothing left to say.