Two years ago last month, Bush gave his second inaugural address. As I watched the speech on television, I and perhaps millions of other Americans struggled to answer the obvious question about the speech: Is it puerile or is it merely tripe?
Bush was hailed throughout the greater Washington metropolitan area for a speech that invoked freedom and liberty almost 50 times. The Washington Post headlined its report on the spiel, “An Ambitious President Advances His Idealism.” The Council on Foreign Relations’ Max Boot cheered that Bush “is signaling basically victory or bust … no backing down.” Liberal columnist Andrew Sullivan swooned, “Who could disagree with the stirring, elegant and somewhat sweeping address the president just gave?” Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, gushed that the speech was “powerful,” “subtle,” “historic,” “sophisticated,” “nuanced,” and “profoundly right.”
Though Bush invoked freedom ad nauseam, none of his comments referred to restrictions on U.S. government power. Instead, they sanctified the president’s right to forcibly intervene abroad wherever he believes it is necessary to “spread freedom.” Like Khrushchev banging his shoe on the podium at the United Nations, Bush was shouting “We will bury you!” to anyone whom he and his cronies label an enemy of freedom.
It is important not to forget the doggerel that launched the Bush second term. His bombast looks almost as pathetic now as a newsreel of a 1935 Mussolini speech.
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.
This speech was delivered eight months after the Abu Ghraib photos hit the street and after many documents and other evidence of the torture scandal had floated to the surface. Yet, regardless of his embrace of torture, the American media still treated Bush as a hero of liberty because of his flowery words.
Bush, sounding like an editor at the New Yorker, declared, “Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.” Supposedly, foreigners would not even recognize their own voice without intervention from Washington.
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.
But Bush has used Americans’ tax dollars to bankroll many of the worst oppressors in the world. And he has rubbed Americans’ nose in the hypocrisy by labeling dictatorial regimes as “freedom-loving” in one White House photo opportunity after another for visiting heads of state.
Two years ago, he could still strut about the supposed great victories he had won in Afghanistan and Iraq: “Because we have acted in the great liberating tradition of this nation, tens of millions have achieved their freedom.” Even at that time, there were clear signs that most Afghans had merely had a change of oppressors, and the rising chaos and bloodshed in Iraq was a far cry from what Americans recognize as freedom.
The speech included the usual pyromania: “By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well — a fire in the minds of men. 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 our world.” His praise for “untamed” is ironic, given his passion for discretionary power across the board.
Bush issued a revolutionary challenge to every government in the world:
We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right.
He is correct that freedom is “eternally right.” But that does not confer upon him or other U.S. presidents the right to appoint rulers in other nations on Earth. The notion of American uniqueness has gone from a point of pride to a pretext for aggression.
He declared, “The leaders of governments with long habits of control need to know: To serve your people you must learn to trust them.” Yet the more Bush trusts the people, the more he wants to spy on them. His “trust” of the American people did not dissuade his administration from seeking to build the Total Information Awareness network to track every purchase, trip, or phone call that people make. The Homeland Security Department epitomized the Bush administration’s “trust” of Americans when it warned 18,000 local and state law-enforcement agencies to keep an eye on anyone who “expressed dislike of attitudes and decisions of the U.S. government.” Perhaps Bush simply trusts people not to object when the feds destroy their privacy.
He concluded with a final lunge:
America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof. Renewed in our strength — tested, but not weary — we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom.
And since the U.S. government proclaims liberty everywhere, it is entitled to pay bribes to foreign journalists (as the Pentagon does in Iraq) and interfere in foreign elections (as the National Endowment for Democracy does almost everywhere except Canada).
Freedom vs. power
Bush’s speech epitomized how idealism can provide a license to kill. Unfortunately, many Americans still have not looked beyond the president’s words to recognize the masses of foreigners who have died because of his intervention. (The British medical journal Lancet estimated that the invasion of Iraq has resulted in more than 600,000 dead since 2003.)
Hearing George W. Bush constantly invoke freedom is like hearing Bill Clinton praise chastity. The Bush team has made so many power grabs at home and bankrolled so many dictators abroad. And yet Bush still seems to believe that citing freedom can sanctify everything he does and every war he intends to wage.
“Freedom” has become merely another invocation to sanctify power. The more often Bush praises freedom, the more deference he expects to receive. He uses the word “freedom” as an incantation to lull people to sleep — to douse any concerns about his latest expansion of government power, his latest deployment of U.S. troops, his most recent executive order. He maximizes confusion over freedom in order to minimize resistance. In ancient Rome, as long as the emperor praised the Senate, the republic was presumed to be safe. In contemporary America, as long as the president gushes over freedom, the people’s rights are considered safe. And the more a politician praises freedom, the more leeway he has to destroy it.
Bush’s invocations of freedom are especially suspect, since he talks and acts as if presidential supremacy is the highest freedom. In an interview published a few days before his second inauguration, he was asked, “Why hasn’t anyone been held accountable, either through firings or demotions, for what some people see as mistakes or misjudgments [in Iraq]?”
We had an accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 election. And the American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me, for which I’m grateful.
Thus, in Bush’s view, Americans had a single “moment” in which to assent to his policies or oppose them. Since slightly more assented than did not assent, Bush felt entitled to do as he pleased in Iraq and everywhere else.
“Open the door to freedom! Put a strong man at the helm!” was the campaign slogan for National Socialist candidates in the 1932 Reichstag elections. The fact that Nazi politicians invoked freedom to win votes did nothing to protect people from their subsequent tyranny. “Strong leader” is also a favorite Bush phrase. He has used the term “strong leader” in more than a hundred speeches since taking office and, as the Washington Post noted, this “was the subtext of his 2004 campaign strategy.” Vultures of doom are not circling Washington simply because Bush used the same “freedom and strong leader” theme used in 1930s Germany. But it is a warning that political navet and craving for a strong leader can be a fatal combination.
Unfortunately, Washingtonians were not the only ones to get snowed by Bush’s rhetoric. Two days after Bush’s second inaugural, I was stuck in a middle seat of a flight from D.C. to Dallas. I wedged in between a chubby little 14-year-old boy and a tripwire-tense Air Force enlisted man.
The kid asked me, “Did you go to the inauguration Thursday?”
I smiled and said no. I asked whether he did. His eyes lit up, his face awoke, and he declared, “Yes!” He told me he was from Bush’s hometown, Midland, Texas.
“What did you think of the speech?” I asked.
“I loved every word of it!”
“So you think it is a good idea for the U.S. to be spreading freedom?”
‘Oh yes. We have to do that.”
“Are you concerned about going to war to spread freedom?” I asked nonchalantly.
The Air Force dude erupted, “Don’t listen to him! This guy hates America! This guy hates our president! Don’t listen to a single thing he says!” After his foam dried, we exchanged a few words and his hinges nearly failed him as I calmly recited a few Bush and Cheney WMD falsehoods.
I smiled. “No. I don’t hate the government. I just think its power should be limited.”
His suspicions of me remained.
“What should government be doing? What is its main purpose?” I asked.
This is the new American vision of freedom that Bush seeks to impose around the world. This type of freedom does far more to empower politicians than liberate citizens. If politicians can redefine freedom at their whim, then they can raze limits on their own power.
Just because a president’s comments are insipid does not mean they are innocuous. Americans cannot preserve their rights if they take their political reality from the person with the most to gain from subverting freedom.
James Bovard [send him mail] is the author of the just-released Attention Deficit Democracy, The Bush Betrayal, and Terrorism & Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the World of Evil. He serves as a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation. Visit his website.