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Issue Date:  February 11, 2005

The limits of freedom

Political freedom -- the ability to stand up in the public square and speak your piece and have a say in who runs the government -- is prized by Americans. It’s nothing new: The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights speak directly to these beliefs. We fought a Civil War to preserve, as Lincoln said, the “last best hope of mankind.”

It’s the reason we cheered when Gandhi forced the British from India, when the Berlin Wall fell, when Boris Yeltsin stared down a menacing Soviet tank, when, most recently, Ukrainian and Iraqi citizens cast their ballots. And it is part of the reason President Bush’s Inaugural and State of the Union speeches were effective pieces of political oratory.

From the Inaugural address: “America’s belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty.”

And from the State of the Union address: “America will stand with the allies of freedom to support democratic movements in the Middle East and beyond, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

Hard to argue with those sentiments. Tyranny has few public proponents.

In both speeches, however, the president offered what to our ears ring as, at best, questionable syllogisms. “Because democracies respect their own people and their neighbors, the advance of freedom will lead to peace,” he said in the State of the Union. From the Inaugural: “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.”

In summary, political freedom leads to peace, which makes us and the whole world, safer. To which the only rational response is: Maybe.

Perhaps the president and his neoconservative speechwriters and advisers are correct: The inevitable thrust of history is pushing forward in an inexorable march toward political freedom. All it needs now is gentle and not-so-gentle prodding from the world’s only superpower, a benign entity that, as the president says, now sees its own ideals and interests as one.

The problem, however, is that our interests (as currently defined) and our ideals are not one. Yes, we pursue elections in Iraq, even as we help depose the duly elected leader of Haiti; yes, we support freedom, but only as long as it respects our authority -- something Venezuela’s freely elected president Hugo Chávez learned when our government supported the ill-fated coup designed to depose him in early 2002. (On Feb. 2, Bush promoted Elliot Abrams to head his democracy push at the National Security Council. Abrams, convicted of lying to Congress over the Iran-contra affair in the late 1980s, was part of the U.S. team that sought to remove Chávez.)

Yes, we support limits on Iran’s nuclear program, even as we maintain the largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction on the planet. And of course we must urge other governments to provide “decent treatment [to] their own people,” even as we torture their citizens at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib.

Hypocrisy aside, it seems to us that the Bush syllogism ignores a key variable.

Sixty-four Januaries ago Franklin Roosevelt addressed Congress at, he said, a time of “unprecedented” threat to the United States. At the close of his address, Roosevelt looked forward “to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms,” the first of which was freedom of speech, the second freedom of religion, and the third “freedom from want.” Even as he rallied the nation to an inevitable war against Nazi aggression, Roosevelt called for “economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants everywhere in the world.”

Today, one-sixth of the world’s 6 billion people exist on $1 a day -- less than a Starbucks cup of coffee; more than 800 million people in the developing world are malnourished; and more than 5 million children under the age of 5 die unnecessarily each year from hunger-related causes. It’s a daily tsunami.

In his calls to end tyranny and to promote freedom, the president makes no mention -- none -- of the world’s poor.

Yes, the United States has an interest in promoting freedom. And, yes, the president is correct, men and women the world over deserve, as a matter of basic human rights, the opportunity to state their views without fear and to join together as citizens to choose their leaders. No argument there.

But Bush asserts that Roosevelt’s fourth freedom -- freedom from fear -- will be guaranteed when democratic rule triumphs. The assertion ignores that most of those fearful for their lives today, uncertain of even the next cup of water, can’t wait for that grand triumph. The ability to speak a piece or cast a ballot is of little value to the dead.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005

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