Do not doubt the sincerity of Bush’s quest for freedom

  • David Broder / Washington Post Columnist
  • Saturday, January 22, 2005 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON – In his brief but eloquent inaugural address, President Bush dedicated the balance of his time in office to the same sweeping goals he set forth at the start of his first term – the worldwide realization of the ideals of freedom and democracy.

Four years ago, speaking from the same Capitol steps to a nation which had barely elected him and an international audience that barely knew him, he said, “Through much of the last century, America’s faith in freedom and democracy was a rock in a raging sea. Now it is a seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations.”

On this cold, clear Jan. 20, as a president tested by war and terrorism and renewed in power, Bush pledged to seek “the greatest achievements in the history of freedom,” the liberation of oppressed people everywhere and the end of all tyrannies.

If that seems a wildly ambitious agenda for a country whose citizens are increasingly discomfited by the unfinished effort to liberate one country – Iraq – it is.

But it reflects one essential truth we have learned about Bush: His faith that the quest for freedom is a universal truth, rooted in human nature and intended by God.

He reached out to Lincoln for his language and his metaphors, paraphrasing one of the Great Emancipator’s famous phrases and saying that “no one is fit to be a master and no one deserves to be a slave.”

But in the sweep of his ambitions to make the United States the driving force for democratization of the world, he resembles no president as much as the idealistic Woodrow Wilson.

In interviews this month with Bush’s White House associates, I found near-universal rejection of the notion that second terms are fated to bring disappointment. When I cited the historians’ litany of scandals and mishaps that befell Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton after their second oath-taking, Karl Rove and others rejected any claim of inevitability.

But it is Wilson – who saw his dream of permanent peace embodied in the League of Nations crushed brutally after he was re-elected in 1916 – who might embody the cautionary message for Bush.

Wilson’s hopes foundered on the ambitions and national interests of the European powers, and equally on the reluctance of Congress and the American people to make the sacrifices required to fulfill such an ambitious agenda.

Skeptics may say that the visionary international policy sketched by Bush is as ephemeral as his vow to “strive in good faith to heal” the political divisions in this country.

But that may be an error. The president has spoken passionately, in private as well as in public, of his belief that “history … has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.”

You have to know that in chancelleries around the world, the implications of his speech are being carefully weighed.

What was striking was that the international liberation cause Bush expounded at length subordinated not only his domestic agenda, but even the call to combat terrorism.

The terrorist attacks that reshaped his first term were cited but once – and immediately linked to their “deepest source,” the fact that “whole regions of the world simmer in resentment” because their people are living under undemocratic rulers.

In effect, Bush put authoritarian regimes throughout the world on notice that human rights and civil liberties will determine their relationship with America.

This suggests a radical redefinition of U.S. policy toward Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example. Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan and Vladimir Putin in Russia must recognize what that means. Even China, the emerging power in Asia, may be asked to show more respect for democracy and human rights. Without naming names, Bush said that America will place its bets on “democratic reformers” in such countries, because they “are the future leaders.”

In his first term, Bush used military force to liberate Afghanistan and Iraq only after he decided that their regimes harbored direct threats to the United States.

He said that the quest for freedom “is not primarily the task of arms,” but I think it would be a mistake not to believe him serious in saying it is a central purpose of his administration.

He has described himself memorably as “a plain-spoken fella,” and these words could not be plainer: “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. Contact him by writing to

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Opinion

FILE - A worker cleans a jet bridge at Paine Field in Everett, Wash., before passengers board an Alaska Airlines flight, March 4, 2019. Seattle-based Alaska Airlines owns Horizon Air. Three passengers sued Alaska Airlines on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023, saying they suffered emotional distress from an incident last month in which an off-duty pilot, was accused of trying to shut down the engines of a flight from Washington state to San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Editorial: FAA bill set to improve flight safety, experience

With FAA reauthorization, Congress proves it’s capable of legislating and not just throwing shade.

Blow: How to respond to childish taunts meant to go viral

When members of Congress descend into click-bait-intended insults, has all focus on legislating been lost?

Krugman: How do you solve a problem like ‘vibesession’?

Most people will tell you they’re in good financial shape, but the economy isn’t. Except, it is.

Friedman: Western Europe sends Israel message it can’t ignore

The decision by three nations to endorse a Palestinian state won’t move Israelis. It will move others.

Expanding grants will help more students get college degrees

For good or ill, the American labor force is being automated. To… Continue reading

Was I-5’s long closure necessary?

It seems there needs to be a rational discussion and possibly a… Continue reading

Balloon releases are harming wildlife

When will the media stop perpetuating the myth that releasing balloons into… Continue reading

The author’s 19-year-old niece, Veronika, was among seven people killed by a gunman on May 23, 2014, in Isla Vista, Calif.
Comment: I lost my niece to gun violence 10 years ago this week

Since then, Washington state voters and lawmakers have taken bold steps to discourage gun violence.

Comment: Reroute of Harvey Field runway not worth flood risk

Without a projected need for expansion, the work risks flooding impacts to wildlife and residents.

Editorial cartoons for Sunday, May 26

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

The vessel Tonga Chief, a 10-year-old Singaporean container ship, is moored at the Port of Everett Seaport in November, 2023, in Everett. (Ryan Berry / The Herald file photo)
Editorial: Leave port tax issue for campaign, not the ballot

Including “taxing district” on ballot issue to expand the Port of Everett’s boundaries is prejudicial.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.