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The “March of Freedom” From Reagan to Bush

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Twenty-five years ago, Ronald Reagan delivered what some consider one of the greatest speeches — if not the greatest speech — of his presidency. In an address to members of the British parliament at Westminster Palace, he spoke words at once powerful and prophetic:

In an ironic sense, Karl Marx was right. We are witnessing today a great revolutionary crisis. . . . But the crisis is happening not in the free, non-Marxist West, but in the home of Marxism-Leninism, the Soviet Union. It is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history by denying freedom and human dignity to its citizens. . . .
What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term — the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people. . . .
For the ultimate determinant in the struggle now going on for the world will not be bombs and rockets, but a test of wills and ideas — a trial of spiritual resolve: the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish, the ideals to which we are dedicated. . . .
 What kind of people do we think we are? . . .  Free people, worthy of freedom and determined not only to remain so, but to help others gain their freedom as well. . . .
Let us now begin a major effort to secure the best — a crusade for freedom that will engage the faith and fortitude of the next generation. For the sake of peace and justice, let us move toward a world in which all people are at last free to determine their own destiny.

The initial draft, prepared by speechwriter Tony Dolan, was heavily edited by Reagan himself. And, as with most of his speeches, Reagan had to fight to prevent moderates and “pragmatists” at the White House and the State Department from gutting the speech of the very features that made it meaningful and memorable, including a section he personally penciled: “What I am describing now is a policy and a hope for the long term — the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.”

The Westminster address envisioned the expansion of freedom and democracy into that part of the world that needed it more than any other: Eastern Europe, the Soviet empire, “the heart of darkness,” as Reagan called it. Until there was freedom and democracy there, he said, there would be no peace.

Nor was he merely predicting such a change; he would make it the policy of his  administration. He would try to reverse the Soviet hold on the region and thereby reverse the Soviet empire, reverse the Cold War, and reverse the course of history.

Such an effort, said Reagan, would constitute a “crusade for freedom.” In the 1950s, he had signed on to General Lucius Clay’s Crusade for Freedom; now he was resurrecting and spearheading it. He added, “This is precisely our mission today: to preserve freedom as well as peace. It may not be easy to see, but I believe we live now at the turning point ” — a historic crossroads.

That march of freedom

Ronald reagan left the presidency the third week of January 1989. By the end of that year, Solidarity candidates had swept 99 of 100 seats in a free and fair election in communist Poland, the Berlin Wall had crashed in a soon-to-be-reunified Germany, Vaclav Havel had left prison for the presidency of Czechoslovakia, and the continent ’s worst living dictator, Romania’s Nicolai Ceausescu, had been lined up against a wall by the masses and shot on Christmas Day — a day he had sought to ban. Two years later, the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist, and the Cold War was over.

Now, as a retired Reagan began what he called “the sunset of my life” in California, a sunrise of freedom set the world aglow.

During the 1970s, Reagan had often bemoaned the lack of freedom in the world, turning in his speeches to data from Freedom House marking the number of free and unfree nations. As president, he dedicated himself to improving those numbers.

By the early 1990s, we could look to the same source to demonstrate the degree of success of the “march of freedom”: In 1980 there were 56 democracies in the world; by 1990, there were 76. The numbers continued upward, hitting 91 in 1991, 99 in 1992, 108 in 1993, and 114 in 1994. Thirteen years after he’d entered the Oval Office, the number of free nations had doubled; by 1994, 60 percent of the world’s nations were democracies.

By the end of the violent twentieth century, which had seen over 50 million perish in two world wars and over 100 million murdered by communist governments, 120 of the world’s 192 nations were free. Outside of Western Europe, 90 percent of Latin American and Caribbean nations were considered democracies, along with 91 percent of Pacific Island states and 93 percent of the nations of East Central Europe and the Baltic area — i.e., the former Soviet region.

Yet there was one part of the world immune to this wave of freedom: the Middle East — the least democratic region on the planet and, perhaps not coincidentally, the most violent. A 1999-2000 survey by Freedom House (done, importantly, before September 11, 2001) found that an astonishing zero of the 16 Arab countries in the Middle East were democratic, the worst rate on the globe.

Freedom’s dungeon

Now, against great odds, another Republican president is attempting to extend Ronald Reagan’s march of freedom to that one area on earth where it has been most resisted.

Agree or not, September 11, 2001 taught George W. Bush something significant: Regardless of whether Iraq was in any way linked to that event, or to al Qaeda, or to terrorism generally — for the record, throughout the 1990s the Clinton State Department rightly listed Iraq as one of the world’s two chief sponsors of terrorism and devoted more attention to Iraq than to any other country in its final annual report — the forty-third president concluded that the pathology of Middle East dictatorship and violence had to be addressed, especially in a world in which wmd technology was coming increasingly within reach of any tyrant.

How to turn the Middle East around? The president concluded that there was only one hope: freedom — political and economic freedom. Indeed, in the academic field of international relations, one of the few practical debates of the 1990s was the “democratic peace” thesis. The argument postulates that democracies, generally speaking — and depending on their level of maturity and stability — do not fight one another and are a safer bet to be peaceful. Thus, to the extent that the hostile Middle East becomes more democratic, it is likely to become more peaceful.

George W. Bush began to sow the seeds for such a transformation, beginning in the Middle East ’s two most repressive states: Afghanistan and Iraq. After removing the Taliban in the fall of 2001, Bush removed Saddam’s regime in the spring of 2003. It is in those countries that Bush hoped to recommence the march.

The “Age of Liberty”

On november 6, 2003, a few months after Saddam Hussein’s Stalinesque statue was felled in Baghdad, President Bush gave his most far-reaching address. He spoke to the National Endowment for Democracy, a group created by Ronald Reagan and rooted specifically in that Westminster Address of June 1982.

This remains the most revealing speech of George W. Bush’s presidency. It contains an outline for his hopeful legacy, and it quoted Ronald Reagan from start to finish.

“The roots of our democracy can be traced to England and to its Parliament and so can the roots of this organization, ” Bush began. “In June of 1982, President Ronald Reagan spoke at Westminster Palace and declared the turning point had arrived in history. . . .  President Reagan said that the day of Soviet tyranny was passing, that freedom had a momentum that would not be halted. He gave this organization its mandate: to add to the momentum of freedom across the world. ”

That mandate, said Bush, was as important 20 years ago as it is today. He noted that observers on both sides of the Atlantic pronounced Reagan ’s speech “simplistic and naïve and even dangerous.” “In fact,” he argued, “Ronald Reagan’s words were courageous and optimistic and entirely correct.”

Like Reagan, Bush cited data from Freedom House. The president reminded the crowd that in the early 1970s there were only 40 democracies, but that as the twentieth century ended, there were 120. “[A]nd I can assure you,” he said, to applause, “more are on the way. Ronald Reagan would be pleased, and he would not be surprised.”

Bush said the world had just witnessed, in little over a generation, the quickest advance of freedom in democracy ’s history. Historians will search for explanations for this occurrence, he noted. However, he said, we already know some of the reasons they will cite. Among them, “It is no accident that the rise of so many democracies took place in a time when the world ’s most influential nation [America] was itself a democracy.” After World War II, reported Bush, the United States made military and moral commitments in Europe and Asia that protected free nations from aggression and created conditions for new democracies to flourish. Now, in the Middle East, under his administration, America would seek to do so again.

The progression of liberty, he said, is “a powerful trend” that, if not defended, could be lost.

That progression of liberty, he said, is “a powerful trend” that, if not defended, could be lost. “The success of freedom,” said Bush, “rests upon the choices and the courage of free peoples, and upon their willingness to sacrifice. ” Because the United States and its allies were steadfast, he noted, Germany and Japan became democratic nations that no longer threatened the world. He then explicitly affirmed his faith in democratic peace: “Every nation has learned, or should have learned, an important lesson: Freedom is worth fighting for, dying for, and standing for — and the advance of freedom leads to peace.” “And now,” thinking of the Middle East — and, like Reagan, speaking of a “turning point” — he added: “we must apply that lesson in our own time. We’ve reached another great turning point — and the resolve we show will shape the next stage of the world democratic movement.” “In many nations of the Middle east,” he continued,

— countries of great strategic importance — democracy has not yet taken root. And the questions arise: Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? . . .  I, for one, do not believe it. I believe every person has the ability and the right to be free. . . .  
Some skeptics of democracy assert that the traditions of Islam are inhospitable to representative government. This “cultural condescension,” as Ronald Reagan termed it, has a long history. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, a so-called Japan expert asserted that democracy in that former empire would “never work.” Another observer declared the prospects for democracy in post-Hitler Germany are, and I quote, “most uncertain at best.”. . .  Seventy-four years ago, The Sunday London Times declared nine-tenths of the population of India to be “illiterates not caring a fig for politics.”. . .  Time after time, observers have questioned whether this country, or that people, or this group, are “ready” for democracy — as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own Western standards of progress.

Seeing the Islamic nations of the Middle East as no exception, Bush contended that “in every region of the world, the advance of freedom leads to peace.” The “freedom deficit” in the Middle East had to be changed; doing so would change not just the region but the world.

Importantly, he added that democratic governments in the Middle East “will not, and should not, look like us.” They should reflect their own cultures; they could be constitutional monarchies, federal republics, or parliamentary systems. Moreover, Bush urged that “working democracies always need time to develop — as did American democracy.” America must be “patient” with those nations at different stages of the journey.

It was instructive that at this point in his speech, Bush again borrowed from Reagan in characterizing his own policy: “Therefore,” he said, “the United States has adopted a new policy: a forward strategy of freedom.” Though he did not cite the source for this phrase, it was Ronald Reagan, who declared in a speech on August 26, 1987 in Los Angeles: “Our goal has been to break the deadlock of the past, to seek a forward strategy for world peace, a forward strategy for world freedom ” — as he had done in London in June 1982.

“The advance of freedom is the calling of our time,” Bush concluded. “[I]t is the calling of our country. . . .  We [Americans] believe that liberty is the design of nature; we believe that liberty is the direction of history. . . .  [T]his is, above all, the age of liberty.” Here, too, it was as if Reagan had entered the room, at least in spirit. “[W]ith all my heart,” Reagan had said in an October 1988 speech at Georgetown University, “I believe that this is the age of freedom.” Though he chose “Age of Liberty” over “Age of Freedom,” Bush meant the same thing.

Finishing the job?

Even before the events of September 11, Bush had declared, in his July 2001 Proclamation 7455 marking Captive Nations Week: “The 21st century must become the ‘Century of Democracy’.” Two months later, in a September 19 exchange with congressional leaders and reporters, the president promised: “We’re going to lead the world to fight for freedom.” He told Bob Woodward: “I truly believe that out of this [September 11] will come more order in the world — real progress to peace in the Middle East.”

In other words, this Bush mission to spread democracy was not — as skeptics have charged — a goal invented to save face and change the objectives of the mission after no wmd stockpiles were found in Iraq; this had been the intention even prior to September 11.

The president assigned himself the role of catalyst. A year after September 11, and more than a year before the National Endowment for Democracy speech and the invasion of Iraq, his administration released its sweeping 2002 National Security Strategy, which promoted the spread of democracy to nations held hostage to despots. This objective, Bush hoped, could bring long-term peace to regions like the Middle East.

The president, convinced that Iraqis, Afghans, and other Middle Easterners would become voters because of an inherent yearning for freedom placed in their hearts by a loving God, reminded journalists in the Roosevelt Room on May 29, 2003, that he had said many times “that freedom . . . is the Almighty God’s gift to each and every individual. I firmly believe that.”

Of course, when he made this claim, those who despise him reacted with scorn as if he were resurrecting some kind of foreign and backward idea. In fact, Bush was saying nothing different from what had been said previously by the likes of Kennedy and Wilson and Jefferson and Madison — and Ronald Reagan who, in his June 1984 speech in Normandy, where a beachhead for freedom had been established in Western Europe 40 years earlier,  had called freedom something “worth fighting and dying for.”

Reagan always maintained that freedom is contagious. On May 9, 1982 at his alma mater, Eureka College, Reagan said that the Soviet elite held power and privilege so tightly because, “as we have seen in Poland,” they “fear what might happen if even the smallest amount of control slips from their grasp. They fear the infectiousness of even a little freedom. ” He hoped that just one nation in Eastern Europe, notably Poland, could spark the spread of freedom throughout the region and change history.

What next?

And what of George W. Bush’s task in the Middle East? Remember those Freedom House numbers: 0 for 16.

And yet, to Bush’s credit, we have now seen four major elections, in Afghanistan and Iraq, over the last two years; in each case, millions of people who had never voted before braved bullets and bombs and turned out in numbers of 60 to 80 percent to participate in democratic elections.

A December 15, 2005 Associated Press story on the third Iraqi election reported that several rocket explosions were heard in Baghdad throughout the day; a mortar shell hit near a polling station in the northern city of Tal Afar; a bomb exploded in Ramadi; another bomb was detonated at a voting site in Fallujah; a mortar round struck about 200 yards from a polling place in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit; and a grenade killed a school guard near a voting site in Mosul. Tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police guarded polling centers. Bomb-sniffing dogs searched everywhere. And Iraqis walked miles to vote, forced to walk because vehicles were banned due to threats of car bombs. Not only did Iraqis persevere, but they did so in droves. Election officials were forced to extend voting due to long lines.

The press accounts of that third Iraqi election that year were reminiscent of the first Iraqi election in January. A New York Times article reported how maintenance workers swept up charred chunks of human flesh from around the feet of Iraqis who refused to leave their spots in line as they waited to cast ballots and then fearlessly stained their fingers with ink that would mark them as targets for terrorists. Anything to halt what al Qaeda ringleader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had deemed “the evil principle of democracy.” In all, 44 people in Iraq literally died to vote in the January 2005 election, the victims of 38 separate attacks on polling stations, in a voter turnout that exceeded the U.S. presidential election two months earlier.

No matter what happens, Bush will be able to tell his grandchildren that he did all that he thought could be done.

Bush was vindicated in his belief that Iraqis would embrace the ballot box. In fact, in terms of directly choosing their own representatives, Iraqis have made far faster progress than did the eighteenth-century Americans and French following their revolutions and new constitutions.

Now, however, the big question is whether this sliver of democratic freedom will hold and bring lasting peace.

If a wave of true political freedom indeed sweeps the Middle East, as it did Eastern Europe after the Cold War — a big “if” — what will history say about George W. Bush? How will we compare him with Ronald Reagan a generation from now?

For one thing, it will need to be noted that, unlike Reagan, who had intended to use his time in office to try to undermine Soviet communism long before the start of his presidency, Bush seized an opportunity he could never have anticipated prior to his. Quite the contrary, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and a global war on terror were not even a part of George W. Bush ’s geopolitical universe on the day he was sworn in as forty-third president.

That said, if freedom eventually does flower in the Middle East, beginning with Iraq and Afghanistan, it will be a tribute to the efforts of this president. This yields an interesting contrast: For Reagan, there will always be debate among academics over who was more responsible for the collapse of the ussr — Reagan or Gorbachev. For Bush, there is no Mikhail Gorbachev.

If he is successful, the dilemma for the historian will be to adequately convey the degree to which he succeeded and endured: As he has pursued what is widely regarded as impossible, he has been savaged by opponents. No future biographer will be able to sufficiently chronicle the white-hot hatred of Bush, including among many in his own party.

George W. Bush clearly identifies with Ronald Reagan in many ways: He says Reagan recognized “that America has always prevailed by standing firmly on principles and never backing down in the face of evil. ” He says Reagan understood that the struggles America faces are “a test of wills and ideas, a trial of spiritual resolve.” “And like the ideology of communism,” he says, invoking Reagan, “Islamic radicalism is doomed to fail.” Prevailing, Bush insists, will require following Reagan’s example of leadership, strategy, vision, and “resolve to stay in the fight until the fight [is] won.”


In ronald reagan’s October 1964 address on behalf of Barry Goldwater — the famous “Time for Choosing” speech that placed him on a path to the White House — he articulated something that those dubious of George W. Bush ought to consider:

We can preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we can sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children ’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.

If Bush’s effort ends in failure, he will nevertheless be able to tell his children and his children ’s children that he did all that he thought could be done. In his second inaugural, Bush echoed Reagan ’s central challenge in that October 1964 speech, reiterated in his May 1981 speech at Notre Dame only days after Pope John Paul ii was shot: Reagan, noted Bush, exhorted his fellow Americans to join him in choosing “to serve in a cause larger than yourself.”

This is not to say that Reagan would have invaded Iraq — that we cannot know. Reagan was extremely judicious about using military force. For all the ideologically motivated portraits of Reagan as a warmonger, the invasion of Grenada stands out as an exception during his term in office. The main strand of his policy was to extend support to those fighting communist governments. But this much we do know: Reagan the optimist would at the very least applaud Bush ’s ultimate objective and would advise him to stick to his principles amid the naysayers.

Unlike Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush’s response to the enemy of the century — an enemy he likewise called “evil” — will not win him accolades in his time. In 2004, Bush won reelection by only a few percentage points; in 1984, Reagan was returned to office in a sweep of 49 of 50 states. In 1989, the very year he left Washington, Reagan could turn on his television and happily observe the fruits of his labor. Bush, however, will need to wait much longer to see any similar legacy. Right now, it seems inconceivable that conservatives (and Americans generally) may one day look back at Bush as fondly as they do Reagan. And though he should have more years ahead of him than Reagan did, Bush himself has averred that his full impact will not be known until after he has left this earth.

George W. Bush is regularly ridiculed for his religious faith. Like Reagan, he draws on that faith during times of tumult. And yet he rightly says that only the “Author of history” truly knows what will ultimately unfold. Democracy in the Middle East might well end with elections in Iraq and Afghanistan — or maybe not. Only time will tell where the march of freedom halts or pauses. For now, however, we would be well-served to pause and give careful thought to this crucial commonality between the current Republican president and the one conservatives admire most. It is a shared vision for freedom that tells us much about the great achievements of the recent past and the possible potential of the not-so-distant future.

Ironically, September 11, which launched the next long-term global war the United States finds itself a part of, happened on the 10th anniversary of the end of the Soviet Union — the definitive end of the Cold War.

This 10-year hiatus between two long ideological battles was characterized by George W. Bush in his second inaugural address as “years of repose, years of sabbatical” between the “shipwreck of communism” and the “day of fire.”

There have been many parallels drawn between George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, especially in recent months when the contrasts have been underscored to show where Bush is lacking. Numerous conservative voices now ask of Bush, “What would Reagan do?” And yet, despite these searches for meaning, the most significant and telling of the Bush-Reagan analogies —one that Bush himself has openly invoked—seems to have whistled by the graveyard of history.