I was surprised by the international focus of Bush’s speech. And I doubt that there has ever been an inaugural speech that mentions ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ more often. (I count 27 instances of ‘freedom’ and 15 instances of ‘liberty’ in the speech). I ardently hope that the universal and eternal longing for liberty will awaken in the breasts of all the world’s billions, and that the flame of freedom will burn bright over every nation, etc., etc., Nevertheless, I found Bush’s bold proclamation of universal liberation somewhat troubling. Whatever he actually means, it sounds expensive and dangerous. That said, I admire the sentiment, and a pledge of solidarity with the world’s oppressed can by itself have a powerful effect.
The striking thing about Bush’s speech is the rhetorical thematic coherence it lends to his entire package of policies. Bush’s vision is one of liberation. Here’s my take on the argumentative structure underlying Bush’s speech…
God gives each person intrinsic dignity and worth, and freedom is required for the full expression of that dignity and worth. Morality requires that we respect others’ intrinsic worth not only by not trespassing against their liberty but also by securing the conditions of the full expression of their human dignity. Furthermore, freedom is interdependent. We are not fully free until all are free. So we must strive for the liberation of those abroad both because morality demands it, and because the full expression of our own freedom requires it. The United States is special because we have, more than any other nation, realized a system of freedom, and thus a system of respect for human dignity. Yet the work of America is not complete. Our system of freedom remains only partial. So we must attempt to bring to fruition the task of devising a system that fully respects the dignity and worth of each individual. The social expression of freedom is ownership, and the fulfillment of the promise of America lies in expanding ownership. We owe this to ourselves. Moreover, we also owe it to the rest of the world, for the American example of freedom is the most powerful force for human liberation.
You’ve got to give it Bush, he’s got “the vision thing.” And it is, on the surface, a coherent and compelling vision. I particularly like the implied idea that we can respect the intrinsic worth of oppressed foreigners by implementing personal retirement accounts. Nevertheless, despite the overwhelming volume of rhetoric about freedom, Bush’s speech paints a picture of a muscular and powerful American state willing to project itself out into the world as a missionary for liberty, which, I fear, does not bode well for liberty at home.
[Update: I think Sullivan says it well:
There were times when the liberty theme became repetitive. And, of course, the relationship of rhetoric to reality is, as always with Bush, problematic. How do you reconcile the expansion of freedom with Bush’s expansion of government? How do you square domestic freedom with the curtailment of civil liberties in a war on terror? How do you proclaim that America is a force for freeing dissidents, when the government now has unprecedented powers to detain anyone suspected of terror across the globe and subject them to coercive interrogation techniques that the government will not disclose? Perhaps these questions do not need to be answered in an inaugural address. But they linger in the air, even as Bush’s eloquence and idealism lifts you up and gives you hope.