What They Said Back Then: The Freedom Agenda


Given the Arab 1848, and the quickening debate on the right about how to respond, check out the conservative response to George W. Bush's second inaugural address, and its call for an end to tyranny in the world. At National Review in that era, Larry Kudlow gave the speech a somewhat breathless preview:

On the day of his second inauguration can there be any doubt that George W. Bush is the most powerful and dominant politician on the face of the Earth? As his policies reshape the American economy and the world, he has far more clout and influence than his predecessors Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush ever had. The younger Bush is more like Reagan. The Gipper revolutionized the economy with tax cuts and deregulation. He had far-reaching global influence with his vision of overturning the evil empire of Soviet communism. George W. Bush is equally visionary.

Now on to the reacts. Jonah Goldberg liked the freedom rhetoric:

I don't know that anyone thinks Bush is going to send tanks into Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan tomorrow in order to be consistent with his speech. But, the more I think about it the more I believe that his speech was intended for a global and transgenerational audience. He was picking sides, throwing down the gauntlet, laying out first principles etc. I really would be surprised if that address isn't being cursed by mullahs and murderers around the world... Yes, he wrote a check yesterday we can never literally cash, but I like the dogma he laid out. And if we have to make practical concessions to reality every now and then -- and be called hypocritical for it -- that's fine by me.

Peter Robinson didn't:

Bush has just announced that we must remake the entire third world in order to feel safe in our own homes, and he has done so without sounding a single note of reluctance or hesitation. This overturns the nation’s fundamental stance toward foreign policy since its inception. Washington warned of "foreign entanglements." The second President Adams asserted that "we go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy." During the Cold War, even Republican presidents made it clear that we played our large role upon the world stage only to defend ourselves and our allies, seeking to changed the world by our example rather than by force. Maybe I'm misreading Bush I'm writing this based on my notes, and without having had time to study the text but sheesh.

Charles Krauthammer was optimistic:

The great project of the Bush administration -- the strengthening and spread of democracy -- is enjoying considerable success. Most recently we witnessed the triumph of the "orange revolution" in Ukraine, which followed the "rose revolution" in Georgia, bringing historic breaks from authoritarianism in two key former Soviet republics. Less publicized were elections in two critical Muslim states -- Indonesia and Malaysia -- in which Islamic parties were decisively defeated.

Elsewhere in the Islamic world, we saw (though many played down) the Afghan miracle: free and successful elections on perhaps the world's least hospitable soil for democracy. That was followed by Palestinian elections and the beginning of political reform. Even more encouraging was a public statement issued just weeks earlier by more than 500 Palestinian intellectuals demanding democracy, the rule of law, transparency and an end to Arafat-style dictatorial rule. And now, elections in Iraq, which are obviously problematic but also very promising.

Ed Morrisey gushed:

For too long, we have allowed those who trade stability for freedom in other nations to achieve the peace of the moment. On 9/11, we found out that this has its own price, and that we received no bargain for our efforts. Excusing dictators and kleptocrats in the long run creates fury, rage, and hopelessness that these same autocrats find useful in directing against us for their own purposes. That cycle has to end, for our own security.

In fact, in its own way, this might be one of the most radically classical-liberal American speeches in a generation.

Here's Victor Davis Hanson:

This is the first time that an American president has committed the United States to side with democratic reformers worldwide. The end of the cold war has allowed us such parameters, but the American people also should be aware of the hard and necessary decisions entailed in such idealism that go way beyond the easy rhetoric of calling for change in Cuba, Syria, or Iran - distancing ourselves from the Saudi Royal Family, pressuring the Mubarak dynasty to hold real elections, hoping that a Pakistan can liberalize without becoming a theocracy, and navigating with Putin in matters of the former Soviet republics, all the while pressuring nuclear China, swaggering with cash and confidence, to allow its citizens real liberty.

I wholeheartedly endorse the president's historic stance, but also accept that we live in an Orwellian world, where, for example, the liberal-talking Europeans are reactionary-doing realists who trade with anyone who pays and appease anyone who has arms-confident in their culture's ability always to package that abject realpolitik in the highest utopian rhetoric. But nonetheless the president has formally declared that we at least will be on the right side of history and thus we have to let his critics sort of their own moral calculus.

And finally, Peggy Noonan:

A short and self-conscious preamble led quickly to the meat of the speech: the president's evolving thoughts on freedom in the world. Those thoughts seemed marked by deep moral seriousness and no moral modesty. No one will remember what the president said about domestic policy, which was the subject of the last third of the text. This may prove to have been a miscalculation.

It was a foreign-policy speech. To the extent our foreign policy is marked by a division that has been (crudely but serviceably) defined as a division between moralists and realists--the moralists taken with a romantic longing to carry democracy and justice to foreign fields, the realists motivated by what might be called cynicism and an acknowledgment of the limits of governmental power--President Bush sided strongly with the moralists, which was not a surprise. But he did it in a way that left this Bush supporter yearning for something she does not normally yearn for, and that is: nuance. The administration's approach to history is at odds with what has been described by a communications adviser to the president as the "reality-based community."

(Photo: Paul J Richards/AFP/Getty)