In Bush's Vision, a Mission to Spread Power of Liberty
By DAVID E. SANGER
Published: October 21, 2004
ASHINGTON, Oct. 20 - In the last, frenetic two weeks of the campaign, there comes a moment at every rally, every town hall meeting, when President Bush starts talking about what he calls "the transformational power of liberty.''
It usually happens toward the end of his speech, after Mr. Bush accuses Senator John Kerry of seeking to beat a hasty retreat from Iraq and of surrendering American sovereignty by creating a "global test'' for the use of military power. It almost always starts with Mr. Bush's description of his warm relationship with Junichiro Koizumi, the Japanese prime minister, and his sense of wonder that he sits down "at the table with the head of a former enemy'' whom his father fought in the Second World War.
Yet it moves quickly to a vision democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, and then to "free governments in the broader Middle East that will fight the terrorists, instead of harboring them.'' It is Mr. Bush's way of infusing the storyline of his presidency with a sense of mission, one as great as the liberation of Asia and Europe a half-century ago, one with the promise of turning the region into what Japan has become: wealthy, peaceful and its own distinctive form of democracy.
It is deliberately far more Reagan than Bush 41, a sparkling symbol of "the vision thing'' that Mr. Bush's father lacked, with disastrous electoral results, a dozen years ago. And while the president's riff rarely shows up on the evening news, it is the uplifting moment in his daily message. It is artfully crafted to get his audiences to look beyond the daily headlines of beheadings and suicide bombers, of an insurgency that has defied American military might, and to focus Americans' attention on the fact that Afghans have just gone to the polls and that Iraqis are trying to do the same.
"Freedom is on the march,'' Mr. Bush declared in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Tuesday morning, as he began to describe an American mission to spread democracy and liberty that just a few years ago was the vision of just a few neo-conservatives, led by Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary. That argument gathered enthusiasts in the administration as they pressed arguments for ousting Saddam Hussein. "Freedom is taking hold in a part of the world that no one ever dreamed would be free,'' Mr. Bush said, "and that makes America more secure.''
Mr. Kerry and many of the president's other critics argue that his embrace of American-led democratization - replete with a warm reference to Harry S. Truman, the president who initiated the reconstruction of Europe and Japan - amounts to little more than an ex post facto justification of the war. They note that Mr. Bush gave only one major speech about democratizing the Middle East before invading Iraq, though he spoke almost daily of the threat of unconventional weapons. ("We needed a few more of the democratization speeches, and less of the other,'' one of his most senior advisers conceded late last year.) Now, it is part of his daily message.
[Actually it was in there from the beginning - selenite]
Critics argue that Mr. Bush's speech glosses over all the mistakes of the last 18 months that have made it more difficult for reformers in the region to sow the seeds of change. And it is certainly jarring to anyone who heard Mr. Bush argue during the 2000 campaign that it was time to get the American military out of the nation-building business, only to run for re-election in 2004 as a passionate proselytizer for using American power to remake one of the most undemocratic corners of the world.
Yet Mr. Bush's vision seems to strike a chord with his crowds. And when Mr. Kerry raises the same subject - as he did today in Iowa, in a broad critique of Mr. Bush's national security policy - it is usually to reject the president's approach. "I will support the forces of progress in nondemocratic countries,'' Mr. Kerry said, "not with reckless campaigns to impose democracy by force from outside, but working with modernizers from the inside to build the institutions of democracy.''
On the rare moments when he has been asked, Mr. Bush has never answered the question of how he would react if Iraq or Afghanistan or other nations in the Middle East held free elections, and freely chose fundamentalist Islamic governments.
But his communications director, Dan Bartlett, said the other day that "the president understands that part of democracy is that you can't dictate what voters are going to do.''
"But look at each step so far'' in Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr. Bartlett said, "and people have demonstrated so far that they are not inclined to go that route.''
Mr. Bartlett insisted that the speech did not spring from the mind of Mr. Wolfowitz or the pen of any speechwriter. "It's Bush,'' he said.
Mr. Bush talks about "the transformational power of liberty'' in the same tones he sometimes talks about the power of religion to transform the soul. He often links the two, repeating a line that "freedom is not America's gift to the world, freedom is the almighty God's gift to each man and woman in this world.''
And sometimes he truly warms to the subject, as he did on Monday in Marlton, N.J.
"After decades of tyranny in the broader Middle East, progress toward freedom will not come easily,'' Mr. Bush said. "Yet, that progress is coming faster than many would have said possible. Across a troubled region, we are seeing a movement toward elections, greater rights for women, and open discussion of peaceful reform. The election in Afghanistan less than two weeks ago was a landmark event in the history of liberty. That election was a tremendous defeat for the terrorists.''
And then, for good measure, he turned the knife a bit as he talked about Mr. Kerry's alternative vision.
"My opponent has complained that we are trying to 'impose' democracy on people in that region,'' he said, as the crowd booed. "Is that what he sees in Afghanistan, unwilling people have democracy forced upon them?''
"No one forced them to register by the millions,'' he added a moment later, "or stand in long lines at polling places. On the day of that historic election, an Afghan widow brought all four of her daughters to vote alongside her. She said this, she said, 'When you see women here lined up to vote, this is something profound. I never dreamed this day would come.' But that woman's dream finally arrived, as it will one day across the greater Middle East.''
For Mr. Bush, perhaps fortuitously, it came just weeks before Americans go to the polls in what is increasingly looking like a referendum on the president's approach to the world. It may be the first chance since 1948 to determine if what Harry Truman did for Japan translates into a very different age, a very different region of the world, and re-elects a very different president.