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Bush and Obama: rhetoric and reality

I’ll have more to say about President Obama’s inaugural address later. But first:

Long-time readers of this blog may recall that even though I supported George W. Bush’s opponent in the 2004 presidential election, I was favorably impressed by much of his 2005 inaugural address. I observed:

Large parts of President Bush’s inaugural address could have been written by the pro-liberation democratic Left.

I quoted parts of the speech that impressed me, including:

There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.
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.

This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities. And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.
We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right. America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies.
Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world:

All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.

Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country.

The rulers of outlaw regimes can know that we still believe as Abraham Lincoln did: “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it.”

And I wondered:

Is it for real? Will Bush be prepared to speak as plainly to our repressive allies as to our repressive adversaries, and to support the dissident democrats confronting the former as well as the latter? Stay tuned.
I see the task of the liberal Left for the next four years as opposing the regressive aspects of Bush’s economic and social policies, while holding him to the noble standard he himself set for his foreign policy.

I introduced a series of “Monitoring Bush” posts to track how closely reality was matching rhetoric. The results were decidedly mixed, and my efforts tailed off as his second term wore on.

My disillusionment was topped off by this:

Obama’s record on opposing tyranny and promoting freedom has, like Bush’s, been mixed. His support for the forces that overthrew Gaddafi in Libya was weclome, but his failure to act more forcefully against the brutal and murderous Assad regime in Syria is a black mark on his administration.

Of course, as we’ve been reminded in recent years, a country rarely moves smoothly and easily from tyranny and repression to democracy and freedom.

As Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic observed in 2011 about the Egyptian revolution:

Democratization is not an event in the life of a society, it is an era: a protracted turbulence. There is no other way. Dictatorships are more easily established. But if strong nerves are required for the birth of a liberal order, so, too, are open eyes. In the interval between the fall of a tyranny and the rise of a democracy, a lot can go wrong. Every saga of democratization includes adversaries of democracy, whose objection to the tyranny that fell was that it repressed society for the wrong reason.

Obama’s speech today was short on high-flown promises to promote global human rights. But he did say:

We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom. And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.

Stay tuned.