Whatever you think of the outcome of the election, the inauguration of the President is a special moment. The ability of a country to hand power peacefully from one administration to the next is one of the most important defining features of democracy. The US should be proud of its history of doing so successfully every four years since John Adams was sworn in as the second President by Chief Justice Ellsworth in March 1797.
George W. Bush described his speech yesterday as “the liberty speech”. As inauguration speeches go, it is not a bad speech (though Bush is, clearly, no John Kennedy). As someone who has written speeches for my own Prime Minister (albeit rather more mundane ones), I admire the superficial quality of craftsmanship of the speech. This is a testament to the work of Bush’s speechwriter, Michael Gerson, who suffered a heart attack at the young age of 40 in mid-December and who returned to the office just two weeks later to work on the speech.
But look deeper, and there is a profound logical flaw in the argument. The essential argument of President Bush’s speech is this:
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: 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.
The US Government is, patiently and subtly, trying to persuade its own people and the world that the terrorist acts of 9/11 provide a reason for it to intervene in other countries in the name of freedom.
Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our nation. … Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time. … Our goal … is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.
Let us be clear: terrorism is a bad thing; and so is tyranny. Liberty is a good thing. But there is apparently no relationship between the terrorists who perpetrated 9/11 and undemocratic government. Al Q’aeda is not a tyrannical government, nor does it depend for its existence on the support of such governments.
As far as I know, Osama Bin Laden has never once criticised the arrangements that America makes for choosing its government, nor expressed any views on the liberties that America rightly cherishes. On the contrary, his argument is that America’s policies abroad reduce the freedom of others. If you read the transcript of his video message of October 2004, his complaint is about the impact of American policies abroad on freedom in those countries:
No, we fight because we are free men who don't sleep under oppression. We want to restore freedom to our nation, just as you lay waste to our nation … oppression and the intentional killing of innocent women and children is a deliberate American policy.
The whole of President Bush’s speech is built on the false premise that lack of democracy in foreign countries is a direct or indirect cause of terrorism against America. There is no evidence to support this claim.
This argument for intervention has evolved as the previous arguments for war in Iraq – that it possessed or intended to possess Weapons of Mass Destruction, and/or that it posed a direct threat to the United States – have crumbled.
My own view is that there is a case for democratic nations being more willing to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries, to put an to end to humanitarian disasters and to protect basic freedoms (including the freedom to choose a Government). But we need an architecture of international law and institutions to carry out this function: a stronger and more active United Nations. By pretending that this is, in some sense, a policy of self-defence against terrorism, the Bush administration is seeking to give itself the power to act unilaterally to intervene in the affairs of other countries. As well as being illegal under the Charter of the UN, the experience of Iraq should have taught them that intervening without the support of the international community, and outside agreed international rules and process, is a recipe for failure and building greater hostility.
There is a direct contradiction between the desire to support liberty around the world, and the US approach to its so-called “war on terrorism”. The US has strengthened its relationship with undemocratic countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. It has resorted to detaining suspected Al Q’aeda sympathisers without trial in Guantanamo Bay. And most importantly, it has done nothing to put pressure on Israel to find a lasting, long term solution to the Middle East. These are not the policies that can be defended in the name of spreading liberty around the world.
Let us, with President Bush, declare that, When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you. But let us choose this because it sustains and supports the ideals on which the United States was founded, not because of a bogus claim that tyrannical governments have any part in the threat of terrorism against the US and other western countries.