Voice in the Wilderness

The news about the "war on terror" your local newspaper won't print.

Friday, January 21, 2005

What they are saying

The inauguration usually begins the honeymoon between the American media and the American president, and Thursday's gala was no exception.

Despite the mention of numerous polls and surveys that find George W. Bush's approval rating the lowest of any second-term chief executive since Richard Nixon, and his disapproval rating the highest of any president in history,
typically, the American media greeted George Bush's inaugural Thursday with the words and images traditionally accorded to the occasion of the leader being anointed.

But it might be worthwhile to examine how the inaugural was treated in the foreign press. Bush's speech was heavily weighted on foreign policy, after all, and many nations were left pondering what that would mean in the wake of U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Dick Cheney's threat expressed in an interview with Don Imus that Iran could be next. (Read the entire transcript.)

Reporting for the Austrialian Broadcasting Company, John Shovelan described the day this way:
Conservative commentators grabbed at the President's inaugural address to answer "the calling of our time," and spread freedom to every region on the globe, as radical and even revolutionary.

But if it's pursued it could lead to some troubled times ahead for relations with Russia, China and Saudi Arabia. That's just to mention a few.

Some are already suggesting the President's expansive pledges have simply set the US Government up to be accused of hypocrisy and failing to measure up to its own rhetoric.

Ironically the most significant effort of his administration's liberty agenda, ending tyranny in Iraq, did not get one specific mention. Critics suggest it's failing its first test. It's the most challenging issue confronting the President, and is the single thing that has the potential to make or break his second term.
Michael Gawenda of the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald sounded a troubled note as well, particularly regarding how the Bush policy would take into account other nations, especially American allies.
There was only a passing reference to the US's allies. Mr Bush said he would rely on their counsel and depend on their help, but again stated he would take whatever action was required to protect US interests.

It was clear everything Mr Bush said was distilled through the terrorist atacks of September 11, 2001. He is absolutely convinced the US is waging a war against a totalitarian enemy - radical Islamic terrorism - that, in some ways, is more dangerous and more difficult to defeat than what his predecessor Ronald Reagan described as communism's evil empire.

It is this view of the world that informs Mr Bush's radical zeal and it is this view of the world that his major Cold War allies in Europe - France and Germany - reject.
The Mail and Guardian of South Africa also took note of the bellicosity of the speech:
In arguably the most combative inauguration speech for 50 years, Bush made clear that the Afghan and Iraqi wars had not diminished his determination to take the counter-terrorism campaign to the United States's enemies. He depicted those conflicts as part of a much broader mission, which he phrased in almost messianic terms.
The newspaper went on to say:
The confrontations to come would not necessarily be "the task of arms", Bush said, but at a time of rising speculation over his second-term plans for Iran, the president did not exclude the possibility of further battles. He pledged: "We will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary." To the American people, concerned at the US death toll in Iraq, he argued that the only way to defend the country was to promote democracy overseas and thus uproot the source of threats to the homeland.
Rupert Cornwell of the London Independent, which does not conceal its disdain for American foreign policy, had a distinctly skeptical note of the words the president used that many newspapers characterized as a conciliation to U.S. allies:
The policy of the US was to "seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture", Mr Bush declared, "with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world". Democratic reformers who currently faced repression, jail or exile would be regarded by the US as future leaders of their countries.

But, he warned, the rulers of "outlaw regimes" should bear in mind the words of Abraham Lincoln, that those who denied freedom to others did not deserve it for themselves, and "could not long retain it".

The President named no names, but the countries he had in mind plainly included those listed by Condoleezza Rice, the incoming Secretary of State, as "outposts of tyranny" during her confirmation hearings this week.

Prominent among them are North Korea and particularly Iran, whose pursuit of nuclear weapons will constitute a crucial early challenge for the re-elected President.

All was couched in terms of bringing freedom to the oppressed - indeed the words "liberty" and "freedom" occurred no fewer than 42 times in a speech that dealt with America's own domestic problems almost as an afterthought.

The US, Mr Bush promised, would not impose its own version of democracy on others. The institutions that emerged in countries that became free "may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own". America's role was to "help others find their own voice ... and make their own way".

To allies who complained of arrogance and unilateralism on the part of the first Bush administration, and opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the President made a ritual nod in the direction of improving ties. "We honour your friendship, we rely on your counsel and we depend on your help," he said, giving a taste of the message he carries to his summit with European Union leaders in Brussels next month.
Fraser Nelson, James Kirkup and Alex Massie of The Scotsman, a Glasgow newspaper that also has been unabashedly critical of American policy, were even more explicit:
In a speech certain to alarm Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia - and discomfort Europeans uneasy about the unbridled exercise of American power - the re-elected president said he would no longer "pretend" that intolerant regimes were acceptable.

Despite hopes from critics and friends - Tony Blair among them - that Mr Bush would use his second, overwhelming mandate from the American people to pursue a more consensual agenda at home and abroad, Mr Bush signalled that, if anything, his missionary zeal was redoubled. "Freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul," the president declared. "Fortunately for the oppressed, America’s influence is considerable and we will use it confidently in freedom’s cause."

In a 17-minute address that used the word "freedom" 27 times, Mr Bush left no doubt that the spread of liberty would be the hallmark of his policies at home and abroad.

The speech also laid the foundations for what Mr Bush’s aides are calling a "Thatcherite" domestic agenda in his second term - privatising the social security pension system with the same ideological fervour as the Conservatives sold British state monopolies and council houses in the 1980s.
It's only normal for the foreign press to consider the presidential inauguration something less than the ga-ga gala we think of it. But when George W. Bush's relentless pursuit of "freedom" threatens the rest of the world, it's worth considering that the carrot and stick seems far more desirable when you're holding it in your hand.


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