|AGW Welcome||The Witness Magazine|
Evangelical Fervor in Foreign Policy
By Joseph Wakelee-Lynch
If there were any doubts remaining that the United States has an evangelical president, they surely have evaporated after George W. Bush's second inaugural address. I'm not worried about Bush-the-evangelical-Christian, however; it's Bush-the-evangelical-American who concerns me.
Since the attacks on the United States of September 2001, the president has advised us that terrorists are the greatest enemy to freedom in the West, because, as he has put it, they hate our freedom and our very way of life. Bush rightly has pointed out that all human beings should enjoy a right to freedom. But last week, on a cold Thursday in January, the president suggested that the United States will not only fight a worldwide battle against terrorists but henceforth it also will assist any people being held under tyranny's grip.
“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. . . 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. . . We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people. . . 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.”
The president's second inaugural address harkened back, as analysts have rightly pointed out, to President Woodrow Wilson's international campaign for democracy in the early twentieth century. Wilson, a Democrat, held a belief in democratizing the world that struck many as crusade-like.
Our nation has a long tradition of presidents using the inaugural address to reaffirm America's special status as the world's “New Jerusalem,” along with our belief that along with being chosen come worldwide responsibilities. The president's second inaugural address harkened back, as analysts have rightly pointed out, to President Woodrow Wilson's international campaign for democracy in the early twentieth century. Wilson, a Democrat, held a belief in democratizing the world that struck many as crusade-like. The lack of democratic institutions domestically, Wilson argued, made for aggressive states on the international scene. His dream, he said, was that the world “will turn to America for those moral inspirations which lie at the basis of all freedom.” The United States, said Wilson, will fight “for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.”
President Bush's declarations reminded me of two other presidents, also Democrats, who believed that the United States was called to a divine mission: Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy.
Almost immediately after leading his country to the successful conclusion of the Second World War, Truman saw a world in which the United States and the West were confronted with an equally dangerous enemy in the form of international communism, led by the Soviet Union. In March 1947, he told the U.S. Congress that the world was characterized by two diametrically opposed ways of life, one that was “distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression.” The other, however, “is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies on terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.” Truman went on:
“We shall not realize our objectives, however, unless we are willing to help free peoples to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes. This is no more than a frank recognition that totalitarian regimes imposed upon free peoples by direct or indirect aggression, undermine their foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States.”
Truman, in response, launched the era of containment, and his administration's foreign policy became known as the Truman Doctrine.
President Kennedy's inaugural address in January 1961 included just as sweeping a pronouncement, as he reaffirmed that containment remained the first order of business for U.S. foreign policy. “Let every nation know,” the young president warned, “whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty. We will do all this and more.” Even President Jimmy Carter, who in his only inaugural address in 1977 recognized that there were some limits to power, pronounced, “Our commitment to human rights must be absolute.”
His edict was shocking because it commits the nation to a policy that is impossible to keep. History already taught the folly of just that kind of limitless promise. Kennedy's reassurances, for example, ultimately turned empty when they led the United States into a war with Vietnam that this country had to walk away from some 15 years after the 1961 inaugural.
Bush's speech, then, drew on an enduring heritage of America's ordained, prophetic, and interventionist leadership in the world. His edict was shocking because it commits the nation to a policy that is impossible to keep. History already taught the folly of just that kind of limitless promise. Kennedy's reassurances, for example, ultimately turned empty when they led the United States into a war with Vietnam that this country had to walk away from some 15 years after the 1961 inaugural.
But perhaps more confounding is that this administration's record itself contradicts the president's promise. The Bush White House has built alliances with leaders who repress their people, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan. Although it has decided that tyranny in Iraq is worth a major war, more than 1300 U.S. lives, and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, the administration, in contrast, is quite restrained in opposing the repression of freedom in China. As for North Korea, the White House itself seems to have demonstrated that threatening tyrants can be only an occasional policy.
Finally, any U.S. promise to support the friends of democracy inevitably resurrects the inglorious episode during the Nixon administration when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger urged the Kurds to revolt against Saddam's Baathist regime because it would help America's ally in Iran, the Shah. The Kurds, though, were later betrayed by their U.S. friends, when the Shah struck an agreement with Iraq, which then crushed the Kurds with little protest from Washington, D.C.
Yet, just as astounding as the president's apparent reach was the phenomenon of White House officials backing away from his proclamation. Before the end of the following weekend, even the president's father sought to straighten out his son's mess when he tried to reassure the nations of the world that his son did not intend to threaten more wars willy-nilly. Presidents, of course, may occasionally benefit from a clarification when they speak off-the-cuff at a press conference. But, shouldn't be it be profoundly unsettling when the White House staff feel they must correct the president's inaugural address?
We are left with wondering how the president's aides and advisors allowed him to give the speech he did, because, surely, it was vetted by people who know better.
I suspect the answer is partly found in January polls that demonstrate the president's weakness in almost every area. Americans continue to like Bush as a person, and most think he has fared well during the terrorism crisis. But, few Americans, including many in the military, see little light at the end of the ever-lengthening Iraqi tunnel, and the government may realize that Iraq's upcoming election may induce even worse conditions – such as a full civil war or an anti-American regime – than we've seen so far. Americans also don't expect improvements in the nation's economy. And they fear what the president may do to the nation's Social Security system. Despite the Bush team's claim of an electoral mandate, the president stands atop an insecure foundation.
I imagine that administration officials wanted to exploit a Democratic leadership vacuum. With no national spokesperson, the Democrats' most articulate leader at the moment probably is Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine – a preacher, not a politician. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I worked for Jim Wallis and Sojourners magazine during most of the 1980s.) Perhaps Republican leaders calculated that by making a grandiose speech, the president might find the word “doctrine” attached to his last name. That could strengthen his hand in battles over the Social Security system, and other issues.
This Christian president may need to be reminded of the ignominious fate of the Bible's two most notorious owners, Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). Perhaps those of us who are tenants can at least be assured that we had a place in the early church, if not this century's acquisitive American Christianity.
In what may have been another stab at “high-concept thinking,” the president floated again his wooly notion of the “ownership society,” although that seems as vague as his memory of his own military service. This Christian president may need to be reminded of the ignominious fate of the Bible's two most notorious owners, Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). Perhaps those of us who are tenants can at least be assured that we had a place in the early church, if not this century's acquisitive American Christianity.
Bush's second inaugural is very likely a combination of, on one hand, the White House's desire to mask, like the Great Oz, the president's somewhat tenuous political power and, on the other, the first stages of “spending his capital” by the president himself. His defeat of Sen. John Kerry must have felt like a personal as well as a political affirmation. Perhaps like the boy-sovereign who becomes a full ruler as he passes into adulthood, the president now appears eager to place his own mark on the White House.
I'm ready to believe that George Bush's deepest political commitment is to liberty, just as I'm ready to believe that his religious conversion was genuine. But, his belief in a faith that can best be called Biblical Americanism is more distressing than ever. The president's administration has demonstrated that when it is convinced of America's prophetic interventionist mission, it doesn't need to think through, or even plan for, the consequences of war. The next war, I fear, will look just as necessary as this one.
Joseph Wakelee-Lynch is a Witness contributing editor, and his regular online column is The View from Sardis. He lives in Long Beach, Calif., and may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.