Barack Obama is thinking of the words of Abraham Lincoln. The President-Elect recently told ABC that “Every time you read that Second Inaugural, you start getting intimidated.” (Lincoln’s First Inaugural is much less intimidating. It’s the one where our first President from Illinois declared, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”)
Obama also had kind words for President Kennedy’s inaugural address, and then added with a slight laugh, “some of the others are not as inspiring.” Perhaps he was thinking of William Henry Harrison’s inaugural address of 1841, the longest of the fifty-four inaugurals delivered since 1789, in which the 68-year-old Harrison spoke outdoors without a coat, caught a respiratory infection, and died just 32 days later.
The more interesting question is whether the President-Elect had George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural in mind when he referred to those that are less inspiring. Perhaps Obama is thankful for his predecessor’s sophomore outing, now held in such low esteem by the prevailing conventional wisdom. Today, Bush’s address is denigrated as the herald of a reckless and failed agenda, characterized by one Washington Post columnist as “a kind of armed do-gooderism — and a foreign policy that has frightened and angered the rest of the world.”
Yet precisely because Bush’s Second Inaugural is so roundly condemned, Obama may now be thinking about how to broadcast the message he has learned from his predecessor’s reputed mistakes. Moreover, Obama may have little choice but to wrestle with the substance of Bush’s Second Inaugural, because its message of universal freedom is one that has echoed throughout every inaugural address since America’s rise to global leadership during World War II. Even presidents with strong realist leanings have had to wrestle with the universality of America’s values and the belief that it is not only Americans who are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.
Of course, no inaugural address voices its author’s suspicion of moralistic foreign policies. Rather, those presidents who incline toward realism strike a passive note, pledging themselves to the defense of freedom where it already exists or describing America as an inspiration, moving others to action without acting itself.
A brief contrast of George W. Bush’s two inaugural addresses illustrates this point concisely. On January 20, 2005, Bush declared, “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.” Four years earlier, Bush observed, “Through much of the last century, America’s faith in freedom and democracy was a rock in a raging sea. Now it is a seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations.”
Those adrift in a raging sea must swim to that rock and grasp it. A seed on the wind is barely noticeable. It cannot be cultivated, like seedlings in a garden.
With good reason, one should be suspicious of the noble promises a president makes at his inauguration. If presidents were truly bound by their invocations of humility, prudence, honor and bipartisanship, neither controversy nor scandal would have a home in Washington. Yet with the benefit of hindsight, it becomes remarkably clear that our postwar presidents have been very candid about their intentions to promote democratic values and institutions actively across the globe.
The unbridled democratic idealism of Bush’s address four years ago stands in stark contrast not just to his First Inaugural, but also to six of the other seven inaugural addresses delivered by Republican presidents. Dwight Eisenhower spoke at great length in 1953 about the importance of freedom, yet made it clear he did not seek to expand its domain. He declared that, “Honoring the identity and the special heritage of each nation in the world, we shall never use our strength to try to impress upon another people our own cherished political and economic institutions.” Rather, Eisenhower’s essential objective was to ensure the unity of the free world in order to deter Communist aggression.
When Eisenhower rose to deliver his Second Inaugural, he found himself in a very uncomfortable position with regard to democracy promotion. Less than three months earlier, the United States had watched helplessly as Soviet forces brutally put down a democratic uprising in Hungary.
On January 20, 1957, Eisenhower declared, “the world of International Communism has itself been shaken by a fierce and mighty force: the readiness of men who love freedom to pledge their lives to that love. Through the night of their bondage, the unconquerable will of heroes has struck with the swift, sharp thrust of lightning. Budapest is no longer merely the name of a city; henceforth it is a new and shining symbol of man’s yearning to be free.”
Eisenhower honored those who would lay down their lives for freedom, but dared not provoke the Soviet Union via direct intervention in Eastern Europe.
In both of Richard Nixon’s inaugural addresses, the overwhelming emphasis in his discussion of foreign affairs was on the importance of peace. In his First Inaugural, Nixon became the first and only president of the postwar era to avoid the subject of freedom in the world. When Nixon said, “We have given freedom new reach,” and “No man can be fully free while his neighbor is not,” he was referring the imperative of racial equality at home. As Nixon explained, “This means black and white together, as one nation, not two.”
In his Second Inaugural, Nixon spoke of the need to “preserve” and “defend” freedom in the world, while remaining silent about the wisdom of extending its reach. During his five and a half years in office, Nixon expended little or no effort on behalf of endangered democracies, most of which fell to anti-Communist strongmen. In the case of Chile, Nixon sided with anti-Communist forces responsible for the brutal coup d’état of September 11, 1973 that resulted in the death of Marxist President Salvador Allende, elected three years earlier.
The inaugural addresses of Ronald Reagan stand in opposition to one another in almost exactly the same manner as those of George W. Bush. In his First Inaugural, Reagan employed the same tropes of passivity as his Republican predecessors. Reagan proclaimed in 1981, “as we renew ourselves here in our own land, we will be seen as having greater strength throughout the world. We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom.”
The freedom enjoyed by American citizens would inspire the oppressed, but Reagan intended to align the United States with authoritarian governments that shared Reagan’s passionate anti-Communism. Reagan’s policy reflected the influence of Jeane Kirkpatrick, his first Ambassador to the United Nations. In her 1979 essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” Kirkpatrick argued that Jimmy Carter’s hesitation to support pro-American strongmen in Iran and Nicaragua led to the replacement of the former by radical Islamists and of the latter by Havana-backed Communists. The price of Carter’s moralism was simply too high.
Once in office, however, Reagan underwent an unexpected transformation, similar to the one that altered the course of the Bush presidency after 9/11. Reagan soon discovered that anti-Communist dictatorships could also be unreliable allies. In 1982, Argentina’s military junta provoked a war with Great Britain over the Falkland Islands, leaving the United States no choice but to side with the government of Margaret Thatcher.
Reagan also became increasingly enamored of anti-Communist insurgents such as the Nicaraguan contras. Thus, in his Second Inaugural, Reagan announced, “Human freedom is on the march, and nowhere more so than our own hemisphere. Freedom is one of the deepest and noblest aspirations of the human spirit. People, worldwide, hunger for the right of self-determination, for those inalienable rights that make for human dignity and progress. America must remain freedom’s staunchest friend, for freedom is our best ally.”
At the time of his inauguration in 1989, George H.W. Bush found himself in a comfortable position, in which he could celebrate the eastward march of freedom without committing himself to a policy of active democracy promotion. Like his son 12 years later, Bush spoke of freedom as a wind, a force of nature, beyond direction by the forces of government. Bush 41 proclaimed, “a new breeze is blowing, and a world refreshed by freedom seems reborn; for in man’s heart, if not in fact, the day of the dictator is over. The totalitarian era is passing, its old ideas blown away like leaves from an ancient, lifeless tree.”
In contrast to their Republican counterparts, the Democratic presidents of the postwar era have spoken far more expansively of their ambitions for overcoming both oppression and poverty. President Truman’s inaugural address firmly cast the spread of democratic values as an active pursuit. In 1949, Truman affirmed, “We believe that all men are created equal because they are created in the image of God. From this faith we will not be moved. The American people desire, and are determined to work for, a world in which all nations and all peoples are free to govern themselves as they see fit, and to achieve a decent and satisfying life.” Already, Truman had begun the hard work of bringing democracy to Germany and Japan. He would continue that work and remain a friend of democrats everywhere throughout his time in office.
In what may be the most memorable words of all in the history of American inaugurations, John F. Kennedy bade his fellow Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” Even professional historians have trouble remembering the next line from Kennedy’s address, “My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” Kennedy insisted on activism, but in the context of cooperation. This was the spirit that animated his Alliance for Progress, through which Kennedy sought to work together with the republics of the Western Hemisphere to promote democracy and resist Communism. Had Kennedy lived, the Alliance might have achieved its objectives.
In 1965, Lyndon Johnson returned to the religious language of Harry Truman to describe his goals. Johnson solemnly intoned, “The American covenant called on us to help show the way for the liberation of man. And that is today our goal.” In a passage that prefigured the carnage of Vietnam even more directly than JFK’s commitment to pay any price and bear any burden, Johnson added, “If American lives must end, and American treasure be spilled, in countries we barely know, that is the price that change has demanded of conviction and of our enduring covenant.”
The next Democratic president would be far more restrained in his rhetoric. In contrast to Eisenhower and Nixon, Jimmy Carter had no reservations about saying, “Because we are free we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere. Our moral sense dictates a clearcut preference for these societies which share with us an abiding respect for individual human rights.” Yet a preference, even clear cut, is not the same as taking action. Striking a passive note more characteristic of Republicans, Carter also insisted, “we know that the best way to enhance freedom in other lands is to demonstrate here that our democratic system is worthy of emulation.”
Carter was on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, he abhorred the interventionism that led to Vietnam. On the other, he sought to the repair the damage done to America’s reputation by launching a global campaign for human rights. The result was confusion.
Until the inauguration of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton remained the only Democratic president of the post-Cold War era. Not surprisingly, foreign policy and national security received only minimal attention in his two inaugural addresses. In Clinton’s brief discussion of freedom in the world, his language straddled the active and the passive. In his First Inaugural, he stated, “Our hopes, our hearts, our hands are with those on every continent who are building democracy and freedom. Their cause is America’s cause.” In his Second Inaugural, Clinton imagined a bright future in which “the world’s greatest democracy will lead a whole world of democracies.” As president, Clinton increased funding for democracy promotion efforts and approved a national security strategy that made the enlargement of the democratic realm an official U.S. objective. Yet in tough situations, like those in Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti and Rwanda, the administration seemed to lack a certain resolve.
What, then, will Barack Obama say on January 20th, 2009? As an advocate of change and a relentless critic of George W. Bush, Obama may be inclined to start his first term on precisely the opposite note that Bush started his second. In his most notable comments on the subject of foreign affairs and national security, Obama has consistently held back from the sort of expansive elaborations of America’s democratic mission found in the inaugural addresses of Truman, Kennedy and Johnson.
Rather than democracy, Obama prefers to talk about protecting “our common security” and “our common humanity.” In his 2007 essay in Foreign Affairs, Obama entitled the opening passage “Common Security For Our Common Humanity.” In that essay, Obama took a swipe at Bush’s democratic idealism without mentioning the President by name. “People around the world have heard a great deal of late about freedom on the march,” Obama wrote. “Tragically, many have come to associate this with war, torture, and forcibly imposed regime change. To build a better, freer world, we must first behave in ways that reflect the decency and aspirations of the American people.” Yet Obama also made a point of mentioning that “We can help build accountable institutions that deliver services and opportunity: strong legislatures, independent judiciaries, honest police forces, free presses, vibrant civil societies.”
In a speech delivered in Chicago shortly after the publication of his essay, Obama seemed to borrow from its language, saying, “We have heard much over the last six years about how America’s larger purpose in the world is to promote the spread of freedom — that it is the yearning of all who live in the shadow of tyranny and despair.” Then, surprisingly, he said, “I agree. But this yearning is not satisfied by simply deposing a dictator and setting up a ballot box.” This statement remains an outlier. Over the past 18 months, Obama has made no similar statement about the universal desire for freedom and America’s mission to promote it.
In his July 2008 address before an audience of 200,000 in Germany, Obama emphasized that the city of Berlin had once been the epicenter of a great struggle for freedom. Yet his vision for the future once again emphasized “our common security” and “our common humanity,” rather than an ongoing struggle for freedom in the vast expanses where it still does not exist. In a pre-departure speech before Obama’s trip to Europe in July, the President-Elect mocked John McCain for believing that after the invasion of Iraq “democracy would spread across the Middle East.”
At the Democratic convention in August 2008, Obama pledged, “I will restore our moral standing, so that America is once again that last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, and who yearn for a better future.” Obama’s language suggests that the restoration of our moral standing will come as the result of an internal cleansing, undertaken before American can once again inspire the world.
Obama provided the most recent hint of his intentions during a January 15 interview with the Washington Post. The President-Elect told the Post’s editors that democracy promotion should be “a central part of our foreign policy.” At the same time, Obama reiterated the widespread criticism of the Bush administration for assuming that elections and democracy are one and the same. What may be more important, however, is what Obama didn’t say. Whereas Bush has insisted that the spread of democratic values and institutions is essential to American security, the President-Elect seemed to think of democracy promotion as a charitable endeavor that may be a distraction from our national interest.
On January 20th, we may see a reversal of roles. Four years ago, a Republican president advanced a bold vision for the future of freedom in the world, which had far more in common with the ambitions of Democratic presidents than it did with Republicans. This year, a Democratic president may present a more passive and restrained vision of America’s democratic potential, of the sort once favored by Republican presidents.
With our economy stagnating and jobs being lost by the millions, a call to expand the frontiers of freedom may not resonate. The safer course for the President-Elect will be to focus on renewal from within, both of our economic strength and of our moral standing. Yet across the globe, there are still democratic activists who want American support now, rather than waiting for the President-Elect to preside of America’s ethical renewal.
Even in Egypt, where activists have good reason to be disappointed with the record of the Bush administration, prominent democrats still look to America for hope. Hisham Kassem is a newspaper publisher and served previously as deputy chairman of the al-Ghad Party, which is led by Egypt’s leading democratic activist, Ayman Nour. Kassem recently told the Washington Post, “The Obama administration should start with a clear statement supporting a strong democracy agenda for this region.”
If the 44th president follows the precedent set by every chief executive since Truman, His inaugural address will provide a critical window into his thinking on democracy promotion. If Obama signals a more passive approach to democracy promotion, he will affirm the widespread perception of the freedom agenda as a partisan and ideological remnant of the Bush administration. If Obama signals a more active approach, he will consolidate the status of democracy promotion as a bipartisan project with the potential to advance both our security and our values. This would cheer Mr. Kassem and all those others who are still waiting for America’s help.
-David Adesnik is a policy analyst focusing on defense issues. He was on the McCain-Palin 2008 foreign policy staff, and blogs at Conventional Folly.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire