Most of us have forgotten by now, but at the time that President George W. Bush gave his 2004 inaugural address
, it was considered to be the best speech of his presidency. A word cloud would undoubtably show that he used the word "freedom" more than any other.
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.
America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time.
For many of us though, this speech felt like a major attempt to justify President Bush's decision to invade Iraq.
From all of you, I have asked patience in the hard task of securing America, which you have granted in good measure. Our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill, and would be dishonorable to abandon. Yet because we have acted in the great liberating tradition of this nation, tens of millions have achieved their freedom. And as hope kindles hope, millions more will find it.
While we know from the words and deeds of President Obama that he shares the ultimate goal that President Bush addressed in this speech, he has drawn a sharp line in rejecting the means our former president employed to accomplish it. Here's how he addressed that in his interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep
I think that the challenge that we're going to have is a recognition that we are hugely influential; we're the one indispensable nation. But when it comes to nation-building, when it comes to what is going to be a generational project in a place like Libya or a place like Syria or a place like Iraq, we can help, but we can't do it for them.
Now, I think the American people recognize that. There are times here in Washington where pundits don't; they think you can just move chess pieces around the table. And whenever we have that kind of hubris, we tend to get burned. Where we're successful is where we see an opportunity, we put resources in, we support those who are trying to do the right thing for their society; and every so often, something breaks.
And so, when it comes to a country like Iraq, here is where President Obama parts ways with former President Bush.
Towards the end of the interview with NPR President Obama said something that was rather puzzling.
America's never been in the business of colonizing other countries and grabbing their resources; we've never been in the business of bullying folks into doing things that we can't do for ourselves. Where we have done that, by the way, it's never worked out all that well. That's not our best tradition.
Our best tradition is when we just lead by example and when we are strong and secure and we're standing up for what we believe in. And we're in a great position to do that right now.
The first sentence in that quote is simply not true...we have covertly colonized other countries, grabbed their resources and played the bully. And the next two sentences from the President acknowledge that fact.
This is a manner of speech from President Obama that I've seen before. He tends to focus our attention on this country's ideals - much as he based his 2008 speech about racism on our founding ideals. The President often speaks aspirationaly rather than descriptively.
I have to admit that I struggle with this pattern a bit. After all, what was the invasion of Iraq but one giant attempt at bullying. To use a another example, an awful lot of Americans are not aware of the context of the Cuban revolution that led - eventually - to the embargo. Fidel Castro's association with the USSR was a direct result of the fact that the United States used our influence with President Batista
(a ruthless dictator) to grab Cuba's resources. None of that is meant to excuse the abuses of the Castro regime. But the United States was complicit. As President Obama said, it was not our best tradition and it didn't work out all that well in the end. So it would be helpful for us to learn from those kinds of mistakes.
I am aware, however, that even though President Obama shades his references to our past in this way, he is still accused of going on apology tours around the globe (four pinocchios from the fact-checker
) and entire movies
are made about his so-called "anti-Americanism."
And yet I long for the day when even our president can talk honestly about both the good and bad we've done as a country. That is another way we could lead by example. But it apparently requires more strength and security than we can muster right now.