By William Fisher
While the Commentariat was scratching its collective head trying to figure out what exactly President Bush meant in his ‘spread freedom’ Inaugural speech, he did it for us.
And the answer appeared to be: “Nothing”.
Reporting on a hastily convened White House press conference last week, Peter Baker wrote in The Washington Post: that the president sees his Inauguration Day goal of 'ending tyranny in our world' as a long-term ideal rather than a new policy redefining U.S. relations with repressive governments, as he ratcheted back expectations of a more muscular approach to spreading freedom abroad.
He went on to note, "While saying he had 'firmly planted the flag of liberty' in Iraq, Bush offered no tangible plans for how he would plant it in other countries, suggesting instead that the stirring words of last week's inaugural address were meant as a statement of principles recapitulating his first-term practices."
" 'I don't think foreign policy is an either/or proposition,' Mr. Bush said in answer to a question about how a country's progress in advancing freedom might be balanced against other American interests, such as securing China's aid in disarming North Korea."
This should come as no great surprise. The kind of Olympian rhetoric we heard at the Inauguration has been used by many other American presidents – including Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan.
But, as former Senator Gary Hart points out, “the evocation of Woodrow Wilson as the standard-bearer for the export of democracy neglects the important distinction that Wilson believed this to be a mission for the entire democratic world, not just America, and one carried out peacefully, not through the use of force.” When Franklin Roosevelt said “the only thing we had to fear is fear itself”, he immediately started to tackle to the despair of the Great Depression. When in 1947 Harry Truman announced the “Truman Doctrine” for containment of the Soviet Union, he said, “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” He did exactly that. John F. Kennedy’s 1961 “ask not” speech -- “pay any price, bear any burden” -- was followed by the Peace Corps, the Alliance for Progress in Latin America, and the beginning of the end to racial discrimination in the U.S. And when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’ and said, “From here on in we tell the truth”, the U.S. changed policy, and that in part led to the implosion of the USSR.
In other words, these presidents tried to narrow the chasm between idealistic rhetoric and the world as we find it.
Why the world didn’t immediately recognize Mr. Bush’s speech for what it was is in retrospect a no-brainer. First, he is the first born-again evangelical in American history. And his speech, in cadence as well as content, was clearly informed by scripture in which he deeply believes. Who could know how far his faith would take the nation? Second, his record. Most American presidents have not found themselves being inaugurated on the heels of two invasions to effect regime change. And with neither the Afghanistan nor the Iraq adventures anywhere near finished, the world was entitled to wonder ‘who’s next?’
That’s still an open question. During the presidential campaign, neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle virtually fell off the radar. Now they’re back, and their subject of choice is Iran. Perle is saying, “Before we face war, there are things we can do today. Tens of millions of people are unhappy with Iran’s theocracy. We should be providing material support to the opposition…Broadcasting…helping young Iranians who want to publish…helping students, trade unions…(This could) bring about regime change by Iranians for Iranians…(and it) could well take out the Mullahs…We should spread the demand for good governance.”
That’s pretty much what the neocons were saying publicly before the Iraq invasion, while privately urging much more muscular action from the Administration. And it should be remembered that it was “working with the opposition” that brought us Ahmed Chalabi.
Moreover, those of us who dislike theocracies have to wonder whether, even if the Iranian reformers rise up and “take out the Mullahs”, Iran is likely to scrap its nuclear program. Perle and his buddies didn’t seem to understand much about the strength of nationalism before Iraq and they don’t seem to have learned much since.
Thankfully, a reality check on the state of the U.S. military should signal that an armed invasion of Iran is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice told us at her confirmation hearing that diplomacy will be her number one priority. She could have no more urgent start-point than Iran. And joining the Europeans in their current negotiations would signal the Administration’s intention to try to resolve the Iran problem multilaterally.
But Dr. Rice also told Senators that the U.S. has “other issues” with Iran that might block agreement on the nuclear issue.
Most observers think she meant its abysmal human rights record. But applying this kind of double standard would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. Many countries that America is proud to call its allies (read: partners in the ‘war on terror’) have equally abysmal human rights records. Thus, the U.S. turns a blind eye to the authoritarian regimes and the human rights atrocities they consistently commit in Pakistan, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Uzbekistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Libya (which has become the Administration’s poster child for ‘reform’ because it turned over its weapons of mass destruction).
In these countries – many of which receive large amounts in U.S. aid – the real weapons of mass destruction are the police and the security services. Does the president intend to deny America’s blessing and America’s aid to these countries? Not likely. The CIA keeps its fleet of Gulfstream jets busy ‘rendering’ prisoners to many of these countries – where they can do to prisoners what is supposed to be unconstitutional in the U.S.
There is also another kind of double standard today that places the Bush speech squarely in the realm of fantasy. The world no longer believes the United States, thanks to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and raids on the civil rights of citizens, immigrants and visitors alike.
So what we can expect from the administration in the next four years?
Richard Haass, president of the Council of Foreign Relations, writes that no one would suggest that the U.S. “should conduct an amoral foreign policy that ignores what governments are doing to their citizens. We should encourage the rule of law, human rights, and meaningful economic and political participation. But as President Bush acknowledged, ‘The great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations’. In the interim, the U.S. needs a foreign policy that deals with the world as it is.”
So the near-term future will be far more about realpolitik than inaugural rhetoric. Given President Bush’s inclination to ‘bring it on’, the status quo may be a blessing.