In a speech at West Point in June, President Bush gave his richest account yet of what we are fighting for. He in effect proclaimed what my Hoover Institution colleague Michael McFaul has called a liberty doctrine, wherein American power has been harnessed, not just for the purpose of the protection of the United States but also for the protection and spread of liberty across the globe.
Mr. Bush quoted a line from General George Marshall’s address to the West Point class of 1942, six months after Pearl Harbor: “We’re determined that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand, and of overwhelming power on the other.” Mr. Bush broadened Marshall’s message: “Wherever we carry it, the American flag will stand not only for our power, but for freedom.”
The American flag will no longer be just “a symbol of freedom.” It is insufficient, in Mr. Bush’s formulation, for the United States to devote American power to ensuring the survival and prosperity of the United States as an exemplar of the blessings of liberty. It is also necessary to set American power to the task of promoting and protecting the freedom of others.
Here is the crux of Mr. Bush’s liberty doctrine: “Our nation’s cause has always been larger than our nation’s defense. We fight, as always, for a just peace—a peace that favors human liberty. We will defend the peace against threats from terrorists and tyrants. We will preserve the peace by building good relations among the great powers. And we will extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent.”
He elaborated, “The twentieth century ended with a single surviving model of human progress, based on non-negotiable demands of human dignity, the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women and private property and free speech and equal justice and religious tolerance. America cannot impose this vision—yet we can support and reward governments that make the right choices for their own people. . . . And we will defend the peace that makes all progress possible.
“When it comes to the common rights and needs of men and women, there is no clash of civilizations. The requirements of freedom apply fully to Africa and Latin America and the entire Islamic world. The peoples of the Islamic nations want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as people in every nation. And their governments should listen to their hopes.”
I can’t say I ever thought I’d be writing about such a thing, but what you see in those two paragraphs is the White House firmly aligning itself with Francis Fukuyama’s universalist “end of history” vision of the spread of the recognition by human beings of each other as free and equal—and against Samuel P. Huntington’s depiction of a “clash of civilizations,” in which the growing power of specifically Western liberal societies will inevitably be met with violent challenges from other societies with very different, antiliberal values.
In Mr. Bush’s view, there is only one “civilization.” But this doesn’t make those who aren’t part of it barbarians; rather, they are victims of oppression at the hands of their rulers. Mr. Bush’s point here is that the tyrants themselves know perfectly well that they have no right to oppress their people and that their persistence in doing so has produced only their own weakness. “A truly strong nation will permit legal avenues of dissent,” he said. “An advancing nation will pursue economic reform, to unleash the great entrepreneurial energy of its people. A thriving nation will respect the rights of women.”
By implication, nations whose governments fail in these areas will be weak, will not advance, and will fail to thrive. The justification for the power that “civilization” brings to bear in a war against terrorism and for liberty is precisely that liberty is the ground of the success and therefore the power of the civilized world. Tyranny produces the weakness that makes it vulnerable to freedom.
Mr. Bush looked forward to “a just and peaceful world beyond the war on terror.” Presidents have announced wars to end war before, and it is easy to mock this as a peculiar American conceit. But wait: Didn’t World War I end centuries of dynastic conflict in Europe? And didn’t the outcome of World War II ensure that European nations wouldn’t fight among themselves and that the United States would never again have to fight Germany and Japan? Those sentiments weren’t silly; they led, in fact, to the partial actualization of the “just and peaceful world” Mr. Bush described. Whether we knew it or not, the liberty doctrine has taken us a long way toward that world, and it can take us farther.
What We Are Fighting For
The Bush speech is nothing less than the founding document of a new international order with American power at its center and the spread of freedom as its aim. Put it this way: You have heard of the Monroe Doctrine, no? Manifest Destiny? The West Point speech, with its liberty doctrine, will be remembered for laying out something no less consequential than those.
This has yet to sink in, mainly, I think, out of the staying power of the venerable if cynical Washington posture of world-weariness, according to which there is nothing new under the sun, we’ve seen it all before, and therefore we are incapable of being surprised. This tendency is usually harmless, except that when something truly new does happen—such as a president of the United States, following on a devastating attack on U.S. territory, finding and enunciating a new purpose for U.S. power in the world—the commentary tends to lag a bit.
Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard was an exception in taking the speech with the seriousness it deserves. Mr. Barnes’s focus was largely the practical matter of the policy of preemption (actually, “prevention” is a better term) that Mr. Bush spelled out: The United States will not wait until it is attacked, or even until an attack is imminent, in order to act against a potential threat. “We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge,” Mr. Bush said. The way Mr. Barnes reads Mr. Bush, and I agree, there is no chance Mr. Bush won’t order “regime change” in Iraq, for example.
Yet even here I think we’re running behind Mr. Bush’s vision. It’s possible, I suppose, that Mr. Bush doesn’t mean a word he says or doesn’t understand what the implications of his statements are or will soon be trimming his sails, but I think a more plausible explanation is that he says what he means and means what he says.
Many times since September 11, he has said things that clearly imply the United States is taking preventive military action. What’s new is the unequivocal universalization of the idea of freedom and liberty he described. For Mr. Bush, there is no other “model of human progress.” But this means that what the United States is now promoting with this liberty doctrine is not a model. It is the answer and it is final.
This is to say two things at once. First, that those who think there is such a thing as another “model” or models or who are promoting some other way of life (Osama bin Laden, for example) are flatly wrong. Second, that they will fail. Any challenge they try to mount will be impeded by their inability to match the resources generated by “human progress.”
As Mr. Bush noted, in a statement that is sobering if not chilling in its implications, “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge—thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.” What Mr. Bush is saying here is that the United States will never allow a “peer competitor” (in the international relations lingo) to arise. We will never again be in a position of “superpower rivalry,” let alone a cog in a multilateral balance of power. The current vast imbalance in power promotes peace most effectively because it teaches governments that any aspirations they might have to pursue war are “pointless.”
Mr. Bush noted that “the great powers are also increasingly united by common values, instead of divided by conflicting ideologies. The United States, Japan and our Pacific friends, and now all of Europe, share a deep commitment to human freedom. . . . In the past, great power rivals took sides in difficult regional problems, making divisions deeper and more complicated. . . . We must build strong great power relations when times are good to help manage crisis when times are bad.”
The vision here is essentially that of a universalist, transnational civilization on the march. “America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish. We wish for others only what we wish for ourselves—safety from violence, the rewards of liberty, and the hope for a better life.” And we have every intention of helping the “others” become part of us.