Great speech. But what did it mean?

Politics and policy.
Jan. 20 2005 4:55 PM

Freedom's Just Another Word

Bush gave a great speech. But what did it mean?

Bush's inauguration: Let freedom ring
Bush's inauguration: Let freedom ring

Perhaps no politician since Lincoln has been better at linking the language of the Bible with the language of democracy, America's secular religion, than George W. Bush. In President Bush's second inaugural address, freedom, like God, comes calling in the night. It comes "to every mind and every soul," Bush said, and it "will come to those who love it." If freedom has left you, have no fear, for there will be a Second Coming, Bush assured, a day when freedom rules the earth. "We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom," he said. "We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul." In Bush's telling, freedom is "a fire in the minds of men," an allusion to the "revolutionary faiths" that powered the French and Russian revolutions. "It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of the world." Bush made freedom sound like God's call, a spiritual force that must be heard and answered willingly but that comes to all who have ears. Freedom must be chosen, Bush said, but it is inescapable that some day all will choose it.

In that sense, this was a speech that could have been written by Francis Fukuyama, who theorized in The End of History and the Last Man that worldwide democracy is inevitable because of man's natural striving for dignity and liberty. Fukuyama was derided by many historians for his assertion that history is directional, with a progress and a path that can be discerned, and Fukuyama's thesis took a severe hit when Sept. 11 drove home the realization that in parts of the world Islamic radicalism has become a compelling alternative ideology to American-style democracy. Yet here was Bush proclaiming that God and freedom are on the same side, and that the End of History is in sight. "History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty," he said.

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As oratory, this was a marvelous speech, an inspiring statement of the universality of American values. But what might it mean in terms of the practice of foreign policy over the next four years? Bush said history does not run "on the wheels of inevitability," but he also professed "complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom." If freedom is inevitable, to paraphrase Clayton Williams, another Texan, why don't we just lie back and enjoy it? Are we asked to do anything to advance its cause? Are we democratic Leninists now, trying to accelerate the natural date of History's end?

Bush set a clear goal for the country—"So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world"—that might be called a second Bush Doctrine (the first Bush Doctrine being unilateral pre-emptive war in the face of gathering threats). But what is the means to this end? It is "not primarily the task of arms," Bush said, so the optimistic interpretation is that Bush has signaled that he is replacing hot war against tyrants with cold war. But Bush also declared, "America's influence is not unlimited, but fortunately for the oppressed, America's influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom's cause." Adding to the confusion, Bush implied that he will be patient with friendly governments, such as Pakistan, when he asked countries to merely "start" on the journey to democracy.

Moreover, the entire thesis of Bush's address is questionable. "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one," he said, because democracy is an elixir that will defeat fanatical terrorism. But were Timothy McVeigh or Eric Robert Rudolph driven to kill because America's democratic institutions failed them somehow? Bush's belief that an absence of liberty is the "root cause" of terrorism feels as simplistic as the belief of some of the left that 9/11 was caused by poverty. Although it's true that democratic societies do not historically go to war with one another, it's doubtful that democracy is sufficient to quell violence from nonstate actors.

The abolition of tyranny is a worthy goal for an American government, even if it is unattainable. Liberals, who will be inclined to quarrel with Bush's message, should have no objections to the values Bush identified as the guiding principles for his second administration. The issue is whether he really has any intention of promoting democracy in Russia, China, and the Mideast when promoting it comes into conflict with other economic and security interests of the United States. There is much reason for skepticism here, such as Bush's policy in relation to Saudi Arabia, Tibet, and Chechnya during his first term. But rather than criticizing Bush's speech, Democrats should nod vigorously and then hold him to it.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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