|The Age of Liberty
By WILLIAM SAFIRE November 10, 2003
With a strong sense of history, George W. Bush last week made the case for "a forward strategy" of idealism in American foreign policy. He dared to place his Big Idea — what has become the central theme and purpose of his presidency — in the direct line of aspirations expressed by three of the past century's most far-seeing and controversial U.S. presidents.
He evoked Woodrow Wilson trying to make the world safe for democracy in 1918; then F.D.R. in 1941 giving hope of freedom to peoples enslaved by Nazism; finally, Ronald Reagan telling a skeptical Britain's Parliament in 1982 that a historic turning point had been reached and Communist tyranny could not stop the march of freedom. "From the Fourteen Points to the Four Freedoms, to the Speech at Westminster, America has put our power at the service of principle," Bush said. "The advance of freedom is the calling of our time."
That is called a theme. Did he develop that theme in his speech, marshaling his arguments both rationally and evocatively at a time of crisis? Did he succeed in setting his vision of our mission in the world before the American people in a detailed, coherent and inspiring way worthy of rallying their support?
I think he did — not only because I agree that protecting and extending freedom has always been America's "calling," but because I was able to read and re-read the serious speech in its entirety.
You have probably not had that opportunity. Most people did not have the chance to catch the whole speech on cable, and found only snippets on broadcast TV; the longest excerpt of the half-hour address ran less than four minutes on prime-time network news.
Some newspapers front-paged accounts of the news in the speech, noting departure from the realpolitik of Nixon, the elder Bush and others: "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe — because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty." But not even The Times gave readers the chance to study the full text in the paper. (It's on the Times Web site at www.nytimes.com/2003/11/06/politics/06TEXT-BUSH.html.)
This speech clearly articulated the policy this Bush will be remembered for. If you are interested in knowing where he wants to take this country and why, you will find it worth reading all the way through. Reading summaries and excerpts and critiques lets editors and analysts do the thinking for you. Film snippets of applause lines won't help you grasp the import, which you should have even if you want to disagree knowledgeably. A carefully constructed speech, like a poem or a brief or a piece of music, has a shape that helps makes it memorable. Bush's "age of liberty" address begins on a note of historical optimism: "We've witnessed, in little over a generation, the swiftest advance of freedom in the 2,500-year story of democracy . . . It is no accident that the rise of so many democracies took place in a time when the world's most influential nation was itself a democracy." (He chose "influential" rather than "powerful" to stress our democratic example.)
Then he takes us on a tour d'horizon of the state of freedom today: from "outposts of oppression" like Cuba, Burma, North Korea and Zimbabwe to China with its "sliver, a fragment of liberty," to the West Bank leaders who are "the main obstacles to peace." Egypt, having "shown the way toward peace" (under Sadat) "now should show the way toward democracy."
He returns to his opening theme in dealing with Iraq, where failure "would embolden terrorists around the world," but where "a free Iraq in the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution." (Failure gets the conditional "would," but success the certain "will.")
But let me not join the summarizers. Invest a half-hour in reading this moving exposition of the noble goal of American foreign policy. And note the subtlety in Bush's concluding reference to the deity in underscoring our opportunity in this age of liberty: "And as we meet the terror and violence of the world, we can be certain the author of freedom is not indifferent to the fate of freedom."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company