Marchand Chronicles: Bush's Inaugural SpeechThe Survival Of Liberty
The Marchand Chronicles
January 24, 2005
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty. — John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961
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. — George W. Bush, Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 2005
No sooner did George W. Bush launch his second term with his inaugural speech, a high-minded paean to worldwide freedom, did the arbiters of Conventional Wisdom — who’ve always been wrong about him — try to discover his angle. Their conclusion: Bush had finally succumbed to the will of his dastardly “neoconservative” overlords, and that his call for democracy was a dangerous harbinger of military attacks against Iran, Syria, North Korea, China, France, Antarctica, Mars, et cetera.
It was as if they’d never heard an inaugural address before. Calls for an American-led journey to universal freedom are prominently featured in many inaugurals, most notably John F. Kennedy’s (in fact, if speechwriters were held to the same documentation standards as scholarly journal writers, Michael J. Gerson, who penned Bush’s speech, would owe no less than eight ibids to Kennedy’s oration). Perhaps at the time JFK’s opponents considered his idealism dangerous. With the benefit of four decades’ hindsight, George Will said the obligations involved led to the Vietnam War.
But it was silly to think that by uttering that line, Kennedy had committed us absolutely and always to freedom no matter what the cost. He undid that knot even before the speech ended, promising to work peacefully with the Soviet Union, not to overthrow it with guns blazing. And indeed, immediately after pledging the country to “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world,” Bush qualified his statement: “This is not primarily the task of arms.”
The promotion of freedom around the world has been America’s calling for nearly a century; it’s been left to each individual president how best to apply it. This naturally leads to contradictions, as geopolitical realities on the ground cause us to rethink how to apply our diplomatic muscle, or even sometimes force us into relationships with unsavory nations. This leads to Complaint Number Two: that by compelling us to end tyranny everywhere, Bush had committed us to the impossible.
Strangely enough, this criticism was offered by conservative Bush supporter and former Reagan and George H.W. Bush speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who asserted that Bush’s team suffered from a fever of passion she called “mission inebriation.” Bush’s fervor for freedom, Noonan said, left her “yearning for something she does not normally yearn for, and that is: nuance.” But even though Bush didn’t offer it in Kerryesque “yes-but” terms, there was subtle nuance in Bush’s speech. Take this key passage:
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: 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.
This has been misinterpreted, even by people who should know better, like George Will: “The idea that the very survival of American liberty depends on the success of liberty everywhere suggests that America is more embattled and vulnerable than it was during the Cold War. Then the survival of liberty meant the containment of tyranny. Now, Bush says, the survival of liberty must involve the expansion of liberty until ‘our world’ is scrubbed clean of tyranny.”
If one examines the two Bush sentences separately, one finds nuance. “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” This may be arguable, but it’s the diplomatic mission statement of the Bush Doctrine: We are safer when places like Afghanistan and Iraq are free, and by establishing democracy in the broader Middle East, we can hope that their citizens will work on the constructive improvement of their nations rather than the destruction of ours. Will equates “other lands,” a veiled reference to those terrorism-sponsoring nations, with “everywhere,” which would be a clear overreach. Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek believes the same when he rhetorically asks, “Is ending Burmese tyranny the urgent requirement of America’s security? Is battling Cuba’s decrepit regime the calling of our time?”
Well, no. But that gets us to the second half of Bush’s premise: “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.” Now he’s talking about the world, and, as he noted several times throughout the speech, the idea of human rights are not the sole dominion of America, but come from God. Or, for those adverse to Bush’s frequent invoking of the Almighty (like, again strangely, Peggy Noonan): Freedom is not just the American dream, but the universal dream.
Since the Bush Administration has used ending tyrannical regimes as a tactical strategy for halting the spread of terror for more than three years, it shocked some of those in the West Wing that people considered the President’s inaugural as a revolutionary new direction in foreign policy. Several White House insiders, including speechwriter Michael J. Gerson, rushed to tell the Washington Post that the address did not represent a shift in foreign policy. Bush’s opponents seized upon this and swung Complaints One and Two the opposite way for Complaint Number Three: well, he really didn’t mean it.
Perhaps no one personifies this rocketing from one extreme to the other like thorny Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. After misinterpreting the speech’s plan as “a long struggle to spread liberty throughout the world -- seemingly without any limits of geography, resources or time,” an “open-ended commitment,” and a “broad ambition,” he began his next column with “Perhaps I owe readers an apology.” For misreading the tea leaves? For failing to see the historical parallels between Bush’s speech and Kennedy’s address? For not understanding the nuances of the oration?
No, of course not. “It appears that I took its promise of an expansive campaign on behalf of democracy too seriously.” Dionne read the Administration’s clarification in the Post and considered it “spinning that all those lovely words didn’t mean quite as much as they seemed to have meant.” Well, not to you, at any rate.
But Bush does mean it; Afghanistan and Iraq are proof enough. In both instances military might was used and, instead of leaving the mess behind only to be forced to clean it up decades later, the U.S. has earnestly attempted to assist them toward the ranks of democratic nations. Georgia and the Ukraine are proof enough, too; in both the Rose and Orange Revolutions the U.S. provided backing that didn’t involve troops, but simply “standing with” them when they declared their own freedom (in the latter case, Bush did so despite the wishes of his ally and friend Vladimir Putin).
Bush meant it just like Kennedy meant it. If one thinks that Bush stepped way out on a limb calling for an end to tyranny, Kennedy’s speech called us to join the “struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” Talk about “broad ambitions.”
In the end, perhaps Complaint Number Two is right: Bush does want to achieve the impossible, or as Peggy Noonan termed it, “perfection in the life of man on earth.” If such idealism is naïve and dangerous, then perhaps the Constitution’s Preamble, which bound us to “form a more perfect Union” qualifies, too. John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush both understand that those ideals serve not just as our goal for ourselves, but as our duty to the world:
We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution . . . unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. (Kennedy)
Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government . . . Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time. (Bush)
George W. Bush has tied national security to national ideals, and in turn to international ideals. Perhaps his critics could find a way to assist this eternal challenge rather than quibble over the details in one speech.