"Bush Freedom," as the estimable James Bovard calls it, is a perversion and, in fact, an inversion of true liberty. It is liberation at the point of a gun, through the coercive state, both at home and abroad. Whether Bush is expanding housing subsidies in America or destroying houses in Fallujah, the "freedom" he endows and exports reduces down to the use of government force in the name of freedom — bastardizing the Real McCoy in the process. Charles Featherstone has also recently written of this type of freedom — government freedom — which isn’t freedom at all.
We all know that liberals and Democrats navely discuss their distorted version of freedom on the domestic front. Harkening back to the "positive freedoms" of FDR — freedom from fear, hunger, and all the rest — today’s liberals think freedom means "single-payer" (read: "socialist") healthcare, guaranteed (read: "socialist") minimum incomes, and universal (read: "socialist") higher education for everyone.
This is economic ignorance in the case of most liberals, though some of them undoubtedly do have a particular hatred for private property.
The Republican version of government freedom, however, is best seen in foreign policy, where the most fascinating elements of Orwellian liberty come into play.
Ever since Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, America has suffered war after war that, either at the time or in the history books afterwards, became associated with freedom, and thus accepted by the masses and defended by most establishment intellectuals. The more pragmatic and less romantic reasons for war — to "save the Union," secure profits for American sugar companies, the oil industry and defense contractors, and expand the power of the executive state — have their partisans, but nothing like "freedom" gets the people riled up and prepared to go along with war, which is, after all, the most destructive enterprise to freedom, by any genuine definition of the word. So we hear that Lincoln freed the slaves (even if it wasn’t his plan) and that Ronald Reagan single-fingeredly pushed down the Berlin Wall (even if it’s not true).
In foreign policy, America first embarked on its global imperialism during the Progressive Era — and era that the more astute thinkers recognize was simultaneously socialistic, corporatist and militaristic, but only the most astute realize was also largely a project of the Republican Party and, in a very real sense, quite "conservative." Sure, if we define conservatism as an essentially libertarian philosophy as held by the anti-New Dealers in the 1930s and 40s, the Progressives were hardly conservative. But if we count the Cold Warriors, devoted Reaganites, admirers of Teddy Roosevelt, the neoconservatives and the worst of the paleoconservatives in our analysis — if we look at the entire 20th century or, better yet, the entirety of U.S. history — the word "conservative" could accurately and usefully be applied to a philosophy favoring militarism, state-business collusions, nationalism, and government protection of ostensibly worthy cultural values.
Certainly, this statist philosophy is what the Republicans have almost always believed. They appear to have been the lesser of two evils in the years that Wilson, FDR, Truman and LBJ held power — but such an appearance is not difficult for anyone without an overt and explicit disdain for liberty to manifest.
The Republicans turned America into a consolidated nationalist state under Lincoln, and into an international bully under McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. Looking back at the Progressive Republicans and their Spanish-American War, we see similarities to today’s GOP imperialism that imply a direct lineage and continuity.
In the rush to go to war with Spain, the U.S. had "yellow journalists," most notably William Randolph Hearst, who wanted to have a war to sell papers, and who covered the atrocities in Cuba and even made some of them up, including brutal rapes. He famously told his photographer on the scene, who saw nothing worth photographing, "you furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war." And he did, more or less.
Such "Yellow Journalism" would never happen any more, would it? Today we have fair and balanced™ reporting (I should be careful about that phrase; I might get sued like Al Franken) to tell us how evil the Enemy is and how lucky we are to have a Leader of the Free World who takes the Free World he leads seriously, unlike the last bozo who lied about sex with an intern. Of course, we also hear much about the atrocities done by the Enemy — many of which are undeniably real, but many of which, when they become roundly debunked, don’t seem to get much coverage on the rah-rah news stations. These often happen to be the juiciest stories, from a media perspective, of atrocities, and the ones that whip the country into a war frenzy like nothing else.
Building up to the Spanish-American War, a war originally rationalized as an exercise of self-defense, only later to be advocated exclusively in terms of humanitarian liberation of a foreign people, the U.S. gave the Spanish an ultimatum to cease fire after the U.S.S. Maine was sunk — probably an accident, historians now speculate — and Spain agreed. The next day, the U.S. declared war.
Kind of like when the U.S. asked Saddam to let the inspectors in and turn over all sorts of documents, and he did, but the establishment kept spreading the administration’s lies that he didn’t comply fully. There’s a main difference: Congress doesn’t bother to declare war any more, since the Constitution is now a "living document," maybe in respect to war more than anything else.
During the Spanish-American War, the U.S. acquired the Philippines, occupying the country and killing at least 100,000 Filipino "insurgents," including, as a matter of policy, children as young as eleven, all of whom, like their modern counterparts in Iraq, apparently opposed the idea of the U.S. empire establishing freedom in their neck of the woods. The U.S. stayed there for years, and never really let go and stopped telling the Filipinos what kind of government they should have. And if you wonder why the U.S. was in the Philippines, even after expelling the Spanish, who, after all, didn’t in fact blow up the Maine anyway, you might also wonder why the U.S. is in Iraq, even after ousting Saddam, who, after all, had nothing to do with 9/11 — though Laurie Randolph Hearst, I mean, excuse me, Laurie Mylroie, might have a different take on the matter.
During the Spanish-American War, the name of the game was freedom. Roosevelt Freedom. This meant Chrisitanizing the largely Christianized Filipino population, liberating the Cubans by militarily occupying their country and forcing them to accept indefinite U.S. domination as the price for self-determination, and distorting facts, bullying dissenters, and outright lying the whole time. This was before Wilson’s war to make the world safe for democracy. This was simply a war to make the Philippines and segments of Latin America safe for the United States warfare state.
We’ve had plenty of Republican war over the last century or so, though we’ve had more Democrat war — but does anyone really believe, in spite of the calamitous enormities of Wilson’s, FDR’s, Truman’s, and Johnson’s various wars and "police actions," that the Republicans were not, by and large, happy to go along for the ride? The Republican wars have, perhaps out of historical circumstance, usually been smaller-scale, even clandestine efforts, but they’ve all been in the name of freedom. Turning Latin America into a U.S. playground in the early 20th century and engaging in a series of deadly dress rehearsals for World War I? Why, freedom was at stake. Overthrowing the democratically elected Iranian leader and replacing him with the Shah? Freedom again. Drafting hundreds of thousands of Americans into a slave army to continue dying in JFK’s and LBJ’s Indochina killing spree? Freedom ain’t free. Secretly carpet-bombing Cambodia, murdering hundreds of thousands of peasants in an essentially neutral country? Well, we couldn’t let Cambodia fall to the Communists, and even if it did anyway — even if the bombing encouraged the rise of the all-time worst Communist tyranny, in terms of per-capita mass-murder — at least the Khmer Rouge wasn’t our Enemy the way the Vietnamese Reds were, right? There’s a greater freedom — a geopolitical freedom from international communism — to consider that is more important than the rights of a million Cambodians not to be bayoneted and tortured to death simply for being educated, Christian, Western, English-speaking, or a wearer of eyeglasses. Indeed, Pol Pot made a point of killing all the literates, ensuring no one would pick up Marx and get any bright ideas.
Under Reagan, Republican Freedom continued on its march through Grenada, Libya, Nicaragua, Iraq and Afghanistan, with the deployment of American troops and bombs, and with U.S.-allied freedom-fighters making sure the collateral damage they inflicted, the terrorism they were instructed by the U.S. to commit, the innocents they tortured and all the people they slaughtered somehow fit into the larger scheme — the greater American scheme — of keeping the planet from turning Red, even if crimson liquid flooded the streets and cities in the process.
Even after the Soviets supposedly stopped being the ubiquitous menace they allegedly were, Republican freedom resumed unabated — liberating Panama from the drug-trafficking politician that the U.S. had recently had on its payroll — liberating the Kuwaiti dictatorship from an invading army led by a thug the U.S. had recently trusted as an ally — liberating the American taxpayer of bothersome, extra pocket-change all the while.
George W. Bush has simply taken Operation Republican Freedom to new heights; his vision is a corollary on top of a century-long series of corollaries that began with one named after Teddy Roosevelt. With Abu Ghraib and related torture scandals, we saw the Republican spin on U.S.-imposed "freedom" abroad: these Iraqis should be lucky, said multitudes of Republican pundits and commentators, to receive this mere abuse and humiliation of being sodomized with foreign objects, dragged around on leashes, subjected to tortuously cold temperatures, deprived of basic needs of food and water, forced to eat pork (contrary to Islam) out of toilets (contrary to civilized behavior), and made to masturbate in front of audiences. Sure, such treatment may offend the sensibilities of the spoiled, politically correct, ivory-tower liberal elites in Manhattan, but it really is a vast improvement over life under Saddam, as any red-blooded conservative armchair warrior can tell you. We must believe this Republican spin, and embrace the doctrine that the U.S. can commit any evils so long as they are lesser than those done by the Enemy, and we must adopt this perspective for the sake of freedom.
Is it wrong to blame the Republicans exclusively, or even primarily, for U.S. foreign policy in its current, horrendous state? I don’t necessarily think so. The Republicans, after all, like to take primary, even exclusive credit. They frequently say, and relish in saying, "Reagan won the Cold War," "Republicans know how to go after terrorists, unlike the wimpy Democrats," and "George W. Bush has liberated fifty-million Iraqis and Afghans." If they want most of the credit for all this liberation — all this "freedom" — a "freedom" which has destroyed millions of lives and produced nothing but tens of thousands of widows and orphans and cities of rotting corpses, they should get the blame too. Republican Freedom is, after all, a two-way street: there’s the freedom that is actually won, which is marginal, if existent at all; and then there are the liberties and lives lost, which usually go uncounted, unconsidered, and yet almost always dwarf whatever benefits, however incidental, we or anyone gain from these wars. If Republicans don’t want the blame, they should stop taking the credit. Or, better yet, they should stop committing such mind-bogglingly huge atrocities in foreign lands, in our name and in the name of freedom.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research assistant at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.