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U.S.: Bush's Speech A Vague Vision, Rather Than Hard Blueprint, For Spreading Freedom, Democracy

  • Andrew Tully --> Bush (at left) takes the oath of office for his second term on 20 January The United States has long championed the cause of freedom and democracy around the world. In his inaugural address beginning a second term on 20 January, President George W. Bush repeated that determination, but left it unclear whether he was merely enunciating an ideal -- or concrete policy. RFE/RL spoke with two observers of international politics about the meaning of Bush's speech.

Washington, 25 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush's inaugural address was forceful but short on specifics and intentions.

"So 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," Bush said. "This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary."

Bush spoke of U.S. "support" for democracy and of freedom as a "goal." He even cited the "force of arms." But nowhere in the 21-minute speech did he say just how his administration would help release people from tyranny. Nor did he say which peoples might be freed.

This did not surprise Nathan Brown, who studies international politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a private policy research center in Washington.

Brown told RFE/RL that presidents use inaugural addresses to outline their loftiest goals in the broadest terms, as Bush did last week. He said specifics of their policies are often reserved for the annual State of the Union address, a speech Bush will deliver on 2 February.

"What we really have is not a set of programs or policy tools or legislative proposals or policy statements, but a vision that focuses not on democracy -- although [Bush] did mention it -- but much more on freedom, which is even more visionary than democracy because it can mean even more things, I think, than democracy," Brown said.

But Brown said he believed the world would not hear any specifics about the spread of freedom from Bush because he expected the president had no concrete plans. He said Bush, like his predecessor, Bill Clinton, was reluctant to make the hard choices to help spread freedom and democracy.
Bush spoke of U.S. "support" for democracy and of freedom as a "goal." He even cited the "force of arms." But nowhere in the 21-minute speech did he say just how his administration would help release people from tyranny. Nor did he say which peoples might be freed.

During the 1990s, Brown said, Clinton limited himself to helping countries like South Korea and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe because they wanted to join the Western political mainstream. The same was true for Bush, Brown said -- with the exception, of course, of Iraq.

Brown also recalled that in the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter was criticized by American conservatives for pressing some Cold War allies on their human rights records. Now, Bush, although a conservative himself, is pressing for greater regard for human rights -- but with a twist.

"When Carter first came in, he did push the human rights agenda aggressively, making relations more tense with some fairly friendly countries," Brown said. "It was the [American] conservatives who lambasted him for that. Now we've got a president [Bush] who's taking up the conservative vision, which is now supportive of spreading democracy, but [he's] unwilling to pursue it with friends or even with business partners, like the Egyptians and the Saudis."

This is precisely what bothers Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian-born foreign affairs analyst at the Middle East Institute, another Washington think tank.

Jouejati told RFE/RL that the peoples of the Middle East had long viewed U.S. foreign policy skeptically because it had been selective in the way it pressed for human rights.

"I think people around the world, and more specifically in the Middle East, unfortunately still continue not to take these words seriously," Jouejati said. "Because human rights are being violated in occupied territories by Israel, is [Bush] going to take economic sanctions against Israel? If he acts against the ones [who are not U.S. allies] rather than the others [who are U.S. allies], it's going to be a double standard of a U.S. foreign policy once again."

Even if Bush was serious about taking concrete action against authoritarian governments, Jouejati said, exactly what could he do?

Perhaps he could take military action against Syria -- after all, it is a neighbor of U.S.-occupied Iraq. But he said the United States did not have the resources to also invade China and Pakistan, for instance, in the name of freedom, democracy, and human rights.

Jouejati said economic sanctions could be a tactic in pressing certain governments to improve their human rights records. But, he asked, could an oil-hungry United States afford to anger Saudi Arabia?

Still, Jouejati said, there was a middle ground between all talk and no action, on the one hand, and military or economic intimidation, on the other.

"What can be done are exchanges," Jouejati said. "Bringing members of Syrian civil society here to the United States to be trained. Sending U.S. members of civil society to Syria in order to address Syrian civil society. And try to go about it peacefully rather than using that terrible, aggressive rhetoric that is only making those civil rights people in Syria look suspect in the eyes of the rest of the population."

Jouejati said the results of such exchanges might not be as quick but they were more likely to yield deeper and, perhaps, longer-lasting results -- without breeding further resentment against America.