1600 Pennsylvania Meets Madison Ave.
By now many commentators, including "realist" conservatives, seem to agree that President Bush's inaugural speech was radical, if not downright bizarre, in its insistence that the United States can and will deliver freedom to Earth's more than 6 billion human residents. "If Bush means it literally, then it means we have an extremist in the White House," said Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center.
What critics here and abroad are glossing over, however, is that as a political marketing device, Bush's address was absolutely brilliant. It takes a true demagogue to remorselessly cheapen the lovely word "freedom" by deploying it 27 times in a 21-minute speech, while never admitting that its real-life creation is more complicated than cranking out a batch of Pepsi-Cola and selling it to the natives with a catchy "Feeling Free!" jingle.
In Bush's neocon lexicon, the fight for freedom has been transmogrified from a noble, but complex and often elusive, historical struggle for human emancipation into a simplistic slogan draped over the stark contradictions and tragic failures of this administration's foreign policy.
"America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one," Bush intoned. Perhaps if we had been in a coma the last four years we could take that as a serious expression of idealism in the vein of, say, Jimmy Carter.
But having seen in recent months how "America's vital interests" have sanctioned torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, war profiteering by Halliburton and lies to the American people about the Iraqi threat, it is hard not to cynically assume that "fighting for freedom" is just a new way to frame the same old hollow arguments.
It all sounds so simple coming out of Bush's mouth. In his feisty speech, two-thirds of which focused on spreading freedom abroad, there was not a single sentence that might actually tip us off as to when, where and by what criteria our support for the international struggle for freedom will be manifested.
At her confirmation hearings last week, Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice offered a little more information, naming six countries as "outposts of tyranny" that would get special attention from the U.S. in the next four years: Cuba, Myanmar, North Korea, Iran, Belarus and Zimbabwe. But how was this unsavory sextet chosen – with a dartboard? She could just as easily have snapped off the names of six of our allies – Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Russia, Kuwait, Uzbekistan and Egypt – equally undemocratic, but which have arguably done more to increase the threat of global terrorism than Rice's squad of baddies.
The fact is, however, that when totalitarian nations like China and Saudi Arabia play ball with U.S. business interests, we like them just fine. But when Venezuela's freely elected president threatens powerful corporate interests, the Bush administration treats him as an enemy.
A State Department spokesman has assured the world that the speech "doesn't mean we abandon our friends." But he added that "many of our friends realize it's time for them to change anyway." I guess that means we can expect Riyadh to allow women to drive any decade now.
Many questions remain. Because Bush said we would stand against all bullies, for example, it would follow that we should actively support the rebels in Chechnya against Bush's friend, autocrat Vladimir V. Putin. Before we do, however, we might want to recall the last time the United States overtly aided a rebellion in the Muslim world: the "freedom fighters" of Afghanistan, which included Osama bin Laden and other Islamic fanatics.
Speaking of which, what happened to the "war on terror"? Well, it appears that because he can't catch bin Laden or bring peace to Iraq or stability to Afghanistan, as repeatedly promised, the president has decided to turn his lemons into lemonade and parlay a difficult security issue into a moralistic crusade.
As the admen say, never confuse the thing being sold for the thing itself. Bush's passion for "freedom" extends only as far as it is useful as a political sales pitch.