Peter Slevin, "The Word at the White House: Bush Formulates His Brand of Foreign Policy," The Washington Post, 23 June 2002, p. B1


In Paris last month, President Bush sidestepped European criticism of his choices on Iraq, missile defense and global warming by invoking a word that has become his verbal talisman in international affairs. "Look," he said, "the only thing I know to do is to speak my mind, to talk about my values, to talk about our mutual love for freedom and the willingness to defend freedom."

Freedom is the president's favorite foreign policy term these days, an all-purpose word he employs to define a high purpose, defend action on the ground or parry awkward questions. He leans into it, like a comfortable cushion, confident of its feel.

The precise meaning he leaves to the listener, giving the word a warm fuzziness and creating a cause beyond rebuttal. "Freedom itself is under attack," the president declared in the tumultuous days after Sept. 11. The American flag will stand "not only for our power, but for freedom," he told graduating West Point cadets earlier this month. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty must be scrapped because it prevents "freedom-loving people from exploring the future," he said in Spain. "While the price of freedom and security is high, it is never too high," he said in his State of the Union address.

Bush's use of the word makes foreign policy discourse easier for him, if not always enlightening for others, by eliminating the convolutions of history and policy in favor of the clarity of a simple common denominator. "It wipes away complexity," says former U.S. diplomat Morton Abramowitz. "He believes in verities, and he believes in simple verities."

The concept of freedom serves as a political device for Bush, as well as a source of moral authority. He invokes the word as shorthand for American values as he defines them, and treats the concept as an argument-stopper. Who but the evildoers, after all, could be against freedom?

It is hardly surprising to hear a U.S. president invoke freedom as a mainstay and motivator of American action, particularly one who sticks to rhetorical basics. But Bush is deploying the term with particular energy, moving toward a sense of mission that links his personal convictions to growing commitment to American activism abroad.

This shift comes as the administration seeks unifying themes to define the uses and purposes of American power ina post-post-Sept. 11 world. Bush and his top aides have been laboring to formulate an agenda that would reach beyond the pursuit of al Qaeda, the overthrow of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and the reflexive imperative of self-defense. They have concluded that the export of freedom, defined as democracy, free markets, individual opportunity and limited government, should now be considered an explicit goal.

This is already the third phase of Bush foreign policy. In his first eight months in office, Bush's circumscribed agenda contrasted with a Clinton administration approach he derided as random and unruly. The new administration emphasized "realism" and distanced itself from a vision of America as peacemaker and all-around do-gooder. Then came the seismic shudder of Sept. 11 and the immediate mobilization of a global assault on terrorism. A changed map dictated rapid responses and a degree of engagement unimaginable before the hijackers struck.

The current challenge is formidable, but so is the change. The old insistence of pulling out of the Balkans now seems trivial by comparison. Even once-spurned Middle East diplomacy has become a staple. Criticism from the interventionist right wing of his own party has faded while liberal observers are watching for works to match the words. An ordinarily skeptical executive from a foreign aid advocacy organization said last week that his organization senses a "turning point."

Debates over the word freedom are as old as the republic. During the American Revolution, freedom represented political self-determination from a foreign power. During the Civil War, the Confederacy sought freedom from the Union and what it saw as an attack on its sovereignty, while African Americans and the Union defined freedom as an end to slavery. During World War II, the nation defined freedom in opposition to fascism. The civil rights movement and the conservative Republican resurgence of the past two decades honored very different conceptions of the word, one about human equality and one about citizens' relationship to the government.

In the wake of 9/11, Bush has borrowed a rhetorical page from Franklin D. Roosevelt, architect of the New Deal and modern liberalism. Bush's State of the Union speech bears intriguing similarities to Roosevelt's famous "Four Freedoms" address to Congress during World War II. Both men used the word "unprecedented" in their opening sentences. They warned that a democratic way of life was under attack and said aggressors could not be permitted to act first. Bush even embraced, in the context of foreign peril, some of Roosevelt's four freedoms -- freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. It is perhaps no coincidence that Bush's chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, is reported to be an admirer and student of Roosevelt's speechmaking.

Yet where Roosevelt's freedom emphasized a social contract and the responsibility of society to insulate as many people as possible from want, Bush's concept stresses the power of personal autonomy and expanding markets. Roosevelt steeled his audience for higher taxes and said the war in Europe must not override a commitment to provide equal opportunity and end special privilege. Bush defended his tax cut, demanded small sacrifice and defined a liberty that would largely preserve the status quo. Roosevelt urged Americans to buy war bonds; Bush urged them to spend at the malls.

Ideologically, Bush is more heir to Ronald Reagan, who all but patented a Republican version of freedom as the central value of American life in his fight against the twin evils of the Soviet Union and big government. Bush, not surprisingly, chose to offer his own first draft of presidential foreign policy in a November 1999campaign speech at the Reagan presidential library in California. There he spoke of "realism in the service of American ideals."

In that speech, Bush said the United States was adapting to a world without a great enemy, but Sept. 11 provided a new foe in global terrorism. And unlike the central Cold War stalemate, where military force was a weapon in service to ideas, the struggle against terrorism dictates that ideas are more often weapons themselves.

The advance of freedom is not just a noble goal, in this view, but a practical strategy to strengthen U.S. security by making other countries less likely breeding grounds for terrorists. Bush told the West Point audience that the administration would promote its philosophy of human dignity and "support and reward governments that make the right choices for their own people."

Bush said the United States would not impose its vision on the world, but the assertion that there are right choices and wrong ones could present problems, given cultural differences and international suspicion about American motives and behavior. In using the language of freedom, says Columbia University historian Eric Foner, Bush and his speechwriters do not take into account "the multifaceted and contested nature of that idea. It posits a single American definition as universally applicable."

As he has defined the rules, anyone who joined the United States against the terrorists became part of what might be called the axis of freedom, just as U.S. allies in the Cold War were accorded status in the Free World regardless of their domestic misdeeds. But while the pieces fit together neatly for Bush on paper, the policy application is not as orderly.

Bush has targeted certain states and militants while permitting some notably unfree states -- Pakistan, Egypt, Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia -- to wear white hats into battle. He seems unprepared to invest much political capital to persuade Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to create a democratic opening or to push Russian President Vladimir Putin to halt the Russian army's human rights abuses in Chechnya.

To Foner, the dilemma was foreseeable. "Once you assimilate the world into this rigid 'freedom' or 'lack of freedom,' it leads you to ignore the local characteristics of conflict," says Foner, author of "The Story of American Freedom." In this world view, he says, "There are those who believe in freedom and those who are enemies of freedom. Therefore, anyone who criticizes the United States is an enemy of freedom."

Bush generally does not dissect complex motives for terrorism, but rather draws sharp dichotomies to explain the Sept. 11 attacks. Using the word freedom 11 times in an address last weekto the International Brotherhood of Carpenters, he told his audience, "A lot of young people say, 'Well, why America? Why would anybody want to come after us?' And the answer is because we love freedom, that's why. And they hate freedom."

To advance what White House officials are calling Bush's "values agenda" abroad, the administration has proposed a 50 percent increase in overseas development funds in the next three years. Bush has also pledged a long-term commitment to Afghanistan, beginning with a pledge to train a national army that breaks from his longstanding rejection of nation-building.

That said, the Bush administration's conception of a helping hand is an austere one. The policy's domestic roots can be traced to the conceptions of individual freedom and responsibility endorsed most prominently by Reagan. Aid is designed as an incentive, the government expects results, and the recipients are expected to pull hard on their bootstraps. In some administration quarters, the policy of measured help for Hamid Karzai's Afghan government is seen as a message that Afghanistan must assume responsibility for itself sooner rather than later. Similarly, the Palestinian Authority is expected to restructure itself to become worthy of support.

To Bush, the methods in each case combine empowerment with self-discipline and accountability. More than one administration official has borrowed a Pentagon word to describe the potential of Bush's foreign policy to be "transformational."

Transformation is more a prospect than a practice at this point, Bush aides acknowledge. Realities -- political, global, financial and otherwise -- will intrude. "The rhetoric reflects a snapshot of the president's mood at a certain moment, but speeches do not matter -- even speeches by the president -- unless they are followed up by clear policies. And that has not been the case up to now," says Richard Holbrooke, President Clinton's U.N. ambassador. Financier George Soros, sponsor of open-society projects around the globe, credits the administration with "at least lip service." But he adds, "There is a gaping hole for a more constructive view of America's role in the world."

That "gaping hole" is something Bush's foreign policy team is working overtime to fill as the administration feels its way forward on a series of engagements that stretch from the Philippines through South Asia and the Caucasus to the Andes. Citing Harry Truman and Gen. George Marshall, author of the Marshall Plan, a senior adviser says Bush believes a U.S. president has an obligation "not just to leave the world safer, but to leave the world better."

Bush's realist tendencies contribute to doubts about his new-found ambitions and whether they will endure beyond an anti-terrorist campaign that includes an Afghan mission dubbed Enduring Freedom. Circumstances dictate, and he accepts, untidy compromises in the Middle East, China and central Asia. But Bush is embracing a more vigorous projection of American force and influence in the service of U.S. interests and ideals alike. By brandishing freedom, one of the country's most cherished words, Bush has rhetorically set the stakes high. Now he must find the policies to match.

Peter Slevin covers U.S. foreign policy for The Post.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company


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