Freedom's New Ring: War on Terror Recast
By Roger Cohen
The International Herald Tribune
Saturday 22 January 2005
New York - When was it exactly that the war on terror morphed into the war on tyranny?
I do not recall, and I suspect the process has been more one of osmosis than abrupt transformation. But anyone with a lingering doubt that America's focus, or at least its rhetoric, has shifted should take a close look at President George W. Bush's inaugural speech.
The phrase, war on terror, so effective in galvanizing Americans to vote Bush, did not appear. Nor did Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, terror networks or other favorites of the post-9/11 presidential lexicon. In their place came freedom (a word used 26 times), liberty (12 times) and an impassioned call to banish oppression.
I have nothing against freedom, believe me. On the contrary, I believe it is the only decent basis on which to build a society. Nor do I have any doubt that Bush is sincere in his embrace of liberty. But as Senator Joseph Biden, a Democrat, remarked this week, overthrowing the tyrant Saddam Hussein "was not the rationale for going to war when we went to war."
In other words, idealism has grown in the White House as the politics of Iraq have demanded it. Because there were no chemical or biological weapons in Iraq and the existence of such weapons was the principal reason advanced for the war, the removal of the despot Saddam became the central justification for the invasion.
The advance of liberty supplanted the curtailment of terror; more precisely, they became one and the same. As Bush said Thursday in the ultimate refinement of his doctrine: "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one."
You have to admire the ingenuity of this. America's long foreign-policy struggle between its values and interests resolved! No more tension between the global fight for democracy and the Realpolitik that could make Stalin or some Latin American despot allies when it mattered! Woodrow Wilson and Henry Kissinger embrace and make up! Freedom equals security! Bingo!
But hang on a second. Is it really in America's "vital interest" to force democratic change in Saudi Arabia or, for that matter, in Pakistan or Egypt? Would such change necessarily make America safer? As the 1920s and 1930s illustrated in Europe, it is precisely when old structures of government are threatened that radical and violent ideologies may exercise the most appeal.
It is also worth recalling that Richard Reid, the would-be shoe bomber of American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami in 2001, came from Britain, a country scarcely a stranger to liberty.
Mohammed Atta, a mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, lived for about a decade in Hamburg. It was in this beautiful Western city, a center of free trade since the times of the Hanseatic League, rather than in his hometown, Cairo, that he became an Islamic jihadist.
The dismantling of several radical Islamic cells in Europe in recent years, not least in Spain, has provided no evidence that free European societies coaxed would-be terrorists from their intent. If anything, it was rather the perception of moral decay in a free and freewheeling West that drove the radicalization of Muslim youths.
The fact is, the rhetoric of freedom has a ring to it and sits comfortably within an American narrative that places the United States in the role of beacon to the world, but fighting Islamic terror is more complicated than, and rather different from, the spread of liberty. They are not one and the same, convenient as that would be.
Bush did say America "would not impose our own style of government on the unwilling," adding that the goal of ending tyranny was not "primarily the task of arms." He also conceded that other countries may defend freedom with institutions that "reflect customs and traditions very different from our own." These comments appeared designed to reassure an anxious world and had the effect of moderating the ringing freedom-is-the-answer message.
But Bush and his designated secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, have also made clear that a central test of their new effort to reach out to Europe would be the extent to which European-American cooperation advances freedom, especially in the Middle East. "America and the free world are engaged in a long-term struggle against an ideology of tyranny and terror," Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
What will Europe make of this? Recent events in Ukraine suggest that the European Union and Bush's America can work together effectively, at least in Europe, to spread freedom. But the very broadness and vagueness of the mission Bush has now given his country in the name of fighting terror causes some alarm.
"We need to be a little more precise," said Wolfgang Ischinger, the German ambassador in Washington. "Fighting for freedom is not enough. If that means going out and being a missionary, Europeans may not want to buy into that. But if it means resources to cooperate with governments and societies that wish to be cooperated with, then yes. The push for liberty has to come from within."
Put more bluntly, if spreading freedom means bombing Iran, Europeans would say, "No, thank you." If spreading freedom means trying to engage with Iranians, even the mullahs, Europeans would get behind that. The war on terror is an expression that proved deeply divisive. But there is no guarantee the war on tyranny will fare any better.
What is now clear is that the global pursuit of freedom is the device Bush has chosen to recast America's response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Absent bin Laden and Iraqi nuclear weapons, liberty moved center stage. Such politics do not make the goal less noble, but its attainment and America's safety may not be synonymous.