Politics & Policy

Bush’s Rhetoric of Freedom

Will it work?

At the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, President Bush announced the three objectives of the new war: “to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.” That middle objective has proved the most troubling, for many abroad believe that Bush’s rhetoric is false — that its nobility is, in truth, a mask for something sinister. They see the liberation of Iraq and its people as merely the latest step in America’s drive to dominate the world politically, economically, and culturally.

To tell those who have adopted this view that they’re wrong is, of course, to invite charges of being naive.

In part, this is due to the legacy of the 20th century. From Berlin to Moscow, Rome to Paris, Hanoi to Beijing, Baghdad to Cairo, the rhetoric of freedom has been used to justify modern tyrannies. The patriotism that results from an autochthonous conception of the nation has been largely discredited, with good reason. Unfortunately, and for varied reasons, much of the world then proceeds to throw the baby out with the bath water, convinced that anything other than an EU-style cosmopolitan outlook will lead inevitably to something like fascism. Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister, recently claimed that the fight over Iraq was actually one against “Anglo-Saxon liberalism.”

Among those who share Villepin’s view, there is no appreciation of the American nation as being an “everyday plebiscite,” as the 19th-century French thinker Ernest Renan defined responsible nationalism. The American brand of patriotism, rooted in the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, is on its face suspect, because all nationalism is suspect. Only a procedural republic, as with Jürgen Habermas’s “postnational constellation,” is permissible. The notion that power could be used for the sake of justice is dismissed out of hand.

Bush believes in the rhetoric of freedom. He believes, passionately, in the “self-evident truths” spelled out in the Declaration — that “all men are created equal,” that they are “endowed” with the natural, pre-political rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that “governments are instituted among men” to secure these and other rights. The Founding is the basis of what he believes and of his foreign policy. But “old Europe” does not much like “old” ideas.

This belief means that irrespective of the historical situation, of local particularities, of levels of civilization, men by nature desire freedom. To Bush, men possess the need for freedom in their souls; without freedom, man cannot pursue his own happiness. Now the question becomes whether, given the disparate national and civilizational histories of the peoples of the earth, this natural human taste for freedom can be covered over, can be hidden, by the flow of historical events. If so, how could the United States help to restore this naturally noble longing?

With this we turn to the events in Iraq. Consider briefly the phenomenon of looting, which has subsided in large part because there is little left to steal. In response to a reporter’s question last month, press secretary Ari Fleischer noted that the looting in Baghdad was “a situation the world has seen before when oppressed people find freedom.…You saw it in Sierra Leone, you saw it…with the collapse of the Soviet Union.” But the fall of the Berlin Wall and its aftermath in fact did not result in the mass looting of national patrimonial buildings or of bureaucratic, educational, and health-care facilities.

Indeed, looting by the people in times of liberation, on the scale we have seen in Baghdad, has not happened on European soil — with the understandable exception of the Albanian lands — for at least a century. Vienna did not burn in 1918; Rome was not stripped of its treasures in 1943; Germans did not loot Berlin in 1945; the people of Bucharest, Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest did not steal from themselves in 1989; and Belgrade’s national treasures were left intact in the course of Serbia’s Prudent Revolution in October 2000. The special circumstances in the Middle East is not so easily brushed aside.

The historical experience of Arabs suggests that legitimizing the concept of the common good, of general societal welfare, will require a sustained education in liberty. Writing from Cairo, Thomas Friedman recently called this war “a shock to the Arab system, on par with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt or the Six-Day War” (New York Times, April 2, 2003). The Arab world has indeed been shocked; their natural antagonism, fed by the propaganda of tyrants, melds with the natural curiosity of people being exposed to a potentially attractive novelty: the revolutionary power of the American sword.

Friedman quotes an Egyptian professor of American studies as saying that this is the first “Arab-American war,” and suggesting that this war is about “America getting inside the Arab world — not just with its power or culture, but with its ideals. It is a war for what America stands for.” In the professor’s view, if the objective of liberation fails, the Arab world “will not just say [to America] your policies are bad, but that your ideals are a fake, you don’t really believe them or you don’t know how to implement them.”

In other words, according to this Egyptian, Arabs are open to the possibility of freedom secured by limited and responsible government. This is, of course, in line with Bush’s belief in the natural power of the longing for freedom. But in order for this openness to take hold, Arabs will have to shed much of what defines them as Arabs — in particular, Islam as it has been traditionally understood by most of its believers.

The greatest obstacle to freedom taking root in the dry desert earth of the Muslim Middle East is the view of Islam, commonly held by its adherents, as denying free will. Simply put, man has no will independent of the will of Allah. Free will, a fundamental tenet of both Judaism and Christianity, means the recognition of an autonomous sphere of human activity. For example: I choose to love her; she chooses to hate me. This is not a matter of the will of Allah, but of my individual will entering the world and encountering her individual will. Free will is absent from so much in Islam that its denial probably has some Koranic roots, though it is obviously not the whole story of Islam.

Bush’s way of seeing the human situation is that whatever our particularities and differences, what makes us all human is our common, natural yearning for freedom. This allows him to affirm a “trust in the power of human freedom to change lives and nations,” as he said in a major address in late February.

President Bush wants to remake the world into a place where the individual rights promised by the Enlightenment are secured by governments committed to enabling those in their care to rise to their natural abilities. Specifically, he expects the pull of self-government based on the rule of law, representative government, and a proper institutional design to be largely sufficient for ordered liberty to take hold in the Middle East. This is the power of American justice.

The difficulty posed by this noble aim can be put in the form of two questions. Could the Bush vision produce disaster in a world not yet ready to accept the just proposition of freedom? On the other hand, could the lack of resolution to exercise power tenaciously be the main factor standing in the way of the realization of freedom? The only thing certain is this: To downplay the particularities of history is to precipitate its repetition.

Damjan de Krnjevic-Miskovic, assistant managing editor of The National Interest, is at work on a study of Bush’s rhetoric of freedom and foreign policy.


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