January 21, 2005


Way Too Much God: Was the president's speech a case of "mission inebriation"? (Peggy Noonan, January 21, 2005, Wall Street Journal)

It was a foreign-policy speech. To the extent our foreign policy is marked by a division that has been (crudely but serviceably) defined as a division between moralists and realists--the moralists taken with a romantic longing to carry democracy and justice to foreign fields, the realists motivated by what might be called cynicism and an acknowledgment of the limits of governmental power--President Bush sided strongly with the moralists, which was not a surprise. But he did it in a way that left this Bush supporter yearning for something she does not normally yearn for, and that is: nuance.

The administration's approach to history is at odds with what has been described by a communications adviser to the president as the "reality-based community." A dumb phrase, but not a dumb thought: He meant that the administration sees history as dynamic and changeable, not static and impervious to redirection or improvement. That is the Bush administration way, and it happens to be realistic: History is dynamic and changeable. On the other hand, some things are constant, such as human imperfection, injustice, misery and bad government.

This world is not heaven.

The president's speech seemed rather heavenish. It was a God-drenched speech. This president, who has been accused of giving too much attention to religious imagery and religious thought, has not let the criticism enter him. God was invoked relentlessly. "The Author of Liberty." "God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind . . . the longing of the soul."

It seemed a document produced by a White House on a mission. The United States, the speech said, has put the world on notice: Good governments that are just to their people are our friends, and those that are not are, essentially, not. We know the way: democracy. The president told every nondemocratic government in the world to shape up. "Success in our relations [with other governments] will require the decent treatment of their own people."

The speech did not deal with specifics--9/11, terrorism, particular alliances, Iraq. It was, instead, assertively abstract.

"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." "Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self government. . . . Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time." "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 the world."

Ending tyranny in the world? Well that's an ambition, and if you're going to have an ambition it might as well be a big one. But this declaration, which is not wrong by any means, seemed to me to land somewhere between dreamy and disturbing. Tyranny is a very bad thing and quite wicked, but one doesn't expect we're going to eradicate it any time soon. Again, this is not heaven, it's earth.

Ms Noonan makes two fairly elementary mistakes here: first, she underestimates how close we are to realizing the end of tyranny, Gains for Freedom Amid Terror and Uncertainty (Adrian Karatnycky, 2004, Freedom House):
In 2003, freedom’s gains outpaced setbacks by a margin of nearly two to one. Despite deadly, sporadic terrorism around the world and a year of significant political volatility, in all, 25 countries showed significant improvements (with three making gains in their freedom category and 22 improving their numerical scores). The year also saw 13 countries suffer significant erosion of their freedom (with five dropping in category status and eight declining in their numerical scores). Freedom categories —Free, Partly Free, and Not Free—represent a broad assessment of a country’s level of freedom, while numerical changes in political rights and civil liberties represent a more nuanced 1 to 7 scale, with 1 representing the highest levels of freedom and 7 representing the most repressive practices.

As 2003 drew to a close, there were 88 Free countries (one less than last year).
There were 55 Partly Free countries, the same as last year. And there were 49 Not Free countries, an increase of one from the previous year.

The globe’s 88 Free countries account for 46 percent of the world’s 192 sovereign
states. In 2003, 2.780 billion people (44 percent of the world population) live in
Free countries, where rule of law prevails, basic human rights are protected, and
there is free political competition. [...]

The world’s 55 Partly Free countries account for 29 percent of all states. In Partly
Free states, which account for 1.324 billion people (21 percent of the world population), there are some basic political rights and civil liberties, but these are eroded by some or many of the following factors: rampant corruption, weak rule of law, and religious, ethnic, or other communal strife. In many cases, a single party dominates politics behind a façade of limited pluralism. [...]

The 49 Not Free countries represent 25 percent of the world’s states. There are
2.210 billion people (35 percent of the global population) who live in Not Free countries. In Not Free countries, basic political rights are absent and basic civil liberties are widely and systematically denied.

As soon as the crumbling regimes in Cuba, China, and Iran liberalize--and while Cuba is a special case because in our backyard, the other two are already at or near the point of GDP per capita where Fareed Zakaria notes stable democracy becomes sustainable and is uniformly demanded by the population--that number of people living in Not Free countries will plunge below one billion and with elections in Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia this year and last the Arab world too is rapidly evolving towards democracy. Soon all that will remain is some cleanup in ever more isolated tyrannies.

Her second mistake is even more significant though, the association of ending tyranny with the realization of Heaven on Earth. In fact, as Europe and Japan amply demonstrate, for most peoples liberal democracy is a brief plateau which rather quickly becomes a cliff that they drive off of. The problem comes when liberality is treated as an end in itself rather than merely as a means to realizing a decent society. As Lord Acton said: "Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought." But folks who are free will generally have little desire to do what they ought. In this sense, there was too little God in the speech because freedom will not bring the world's blighted spots decent societies without as heavy a dose of Him as we, almost uniquely, maintain.

Ms Noonan would be right to be skeptical about mankind producing a universally decent society, but a universally liberal one is nearly here, for good and ill.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 21, 2005 9:01 AM

I think they need to check the basement for pods over at the WSJ building. I think Peggy Noonan's been replaced by an alien.

Posted by: Mike Morley at January 21, 2005 9:36 AM

No I just think Peggy is fearful that a speech that contains Bush's core beliefs will turn off too many swing voters because of its religious nature.

Remember all the people who said "Let Reagan be Reagan" due to the feeling that too many around the president were trying to muffle his core beliefs? Their basic feeling was Reagan won in 1980 mainly because of the total ineptitude of Jimmy Carter and that we couldn't have too much of the unvarnished Reagan, or the Republicans would be thrown out of office again.

Noonan was the author of George H.W. Bush's "Kinder, gentler" speech, which was at the time seen as a bit of a rebuke of Reaganism and a way to tell the swing voters out there that Bush wouldn't be Reagan. Now Noonan seems to be adverse to the idea of "Letting Bush be Bush" apparently due to the same fear that an unvarnished GWB who displays his religious beliefs openly as a foundation for his political policies is going to alienate those same swing voters, cost the Republicans down the line and hurt the conservative cause.

Noonan still believes in conservative ideals. She just doesn't have enough faith that a majority of Americans will accept someone as president who both voices unqualified support for those ideas and who doesn't stress secular reasons for believing in those goals.

Posted by: John at January 21, 2005 9:54 AM

Catholics like the wonderful Ms. Noonan don't talk like this:

"[F]or wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us..."

Posted by: JimGooding at January 21, 2005 10:08 AM

Liberalhawk at Rantburg posted this, and I think it's wonderful:

...Steve is right - theres got to be concern in Iran and Syria - and also in North Korea and Burma - and ALSO in Egypt and KSA and Uzbekistan - as there should be - think about it - most ordinary Iranians love the USA, while most ordinary Egyptians hate us -is the Koran somehow more antiinfidel in Cairo than in Teheran? Are the Egyptians really more concerned about the Pals than the Iranians are? I dont think so. The difference is that Iranians see us has opposing their tyranny, while Egyptians see us as supporting theirs.

And another thing - we have to think not only of ourselves, but of our children and grandchildren. in 50, or maybe 70 years, we are likely NOT to be the only superpower. China and India will likely be our equals - IF we do relatively well. Otherwise they will pass our power. IF we reach that era with a China that is still a paranoid dictatorship, and, when we look for allies, are seen as a nation whose only goal had been our own security, we will face a return to world where life is "nasty, brutish, and short". We will have lost the promise of the American Century. If our legacy is a democratic world, and a US at the center of democratic alliances, we will have assured a better world, even as our dominant power recedes.

Posted by: Sandy P at January 21, 2005 10:29 AM

Bush's speech is in the tradition of John Paul II, not Hegel.

It's a shame Noonan is unable to grasp that.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at January 21, 2005 11:06 AM

I was surprised at her article because I had seen her a little bit on Fox News and I thought she like the speech based on her reaction right after President Bush delivered it. Did I miss something?

Posted by: Jana at January 21, 2005 11:55 AM

Odd coming from Peggy. If I didn't know better, I'd think it was sour grapes. Perhaps the speech was far greater or more courageous than any of hers.

Posted by: erp at January 21, 2005 2:57 PM

I heard this second-hand but was told that Bush's address yesterday ranked among the best...and this was heard on NPR??? Can anyone verify this?

Posted by: Bartman at January 21, 2005 4:25 PM

Count me among those who like Noonan but think she blew this analysis. Maybe she needs to brush up on football, which I think is a useful metaphor for understanding what we heard. I've developed that thought on my blog.

Posted by: Patrick O'Hannigan at January 21, 2005 8:35 PM