The Common Good
March 2005

The Bush Doctrine

by Jim Wallis | March 2005

If the war in Iraq is the 'practical' expression of George Bush's theology of liberty and freedom, the world is in serious trouble.

Since the first inauguration in 1789,

Since the first inauguration in 1789, each president has referenced God in his inaugural address. After taking the oath of office, George Washington ad-libbed the final words, "So help me God." Every president since has done the same in the oath.

The question has never been whether religious language will be used in presidential inaugurals, but how. In perhaps the most famous, Lincoln’s second inaugural address, God was invoked not to bless the nation, or give any triumphal comfort to either side in the Civil War, but rather to call the nation to penitence. In doing so, he showed a preference for humble reflection over easy certainty, accountability over blessing, repentance over confidence. That was missing in George W. Bush’s second inaugural, which was rather full of a religious sense of both confidence and mission.

For an evangelical Christian, George W. Bush does not seem to have a well-developed sense of sin - at least as far as the nation is concerned. In his speech, President Bush expressed a far-reaching commitment to "liberty" and "the force of human freedom" in the world - values that most Americans, religious or not, would readily affirm. The president has often rightly acknowledged that "freedom" is a gift from God, not the possession of any nation. But his remarkable speech announced that the role of deciding if, when, and where freedom will be defended belongs to the United States of America; America is on a religious mission to protect freedom, and George Bush is freedom’s vicar.

But other words of religious wisdom were missing, such as the warnings of Jesus to not just see the specks in your adversary’s eye, but also the log in your own. Religious leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out that America was often on the wrong side of freedom when it supported brutal dictatorships in Latin America, Africa, and Asia during the Cold War. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned against easy and often self-serving definitions of good and evil, especially when it comes to the collective morality of nations.

In the Bush speech there was no acknowledgement of contradictions, double standards, or even limitations. The richest and most powerful nation in the world announced the right to define and defend freedom’s cause. The only remaining superpower now claims the ability to be the arbiter of freedom around the world - intervention in Iraq, for instance, but not in Rwanda. Neoconservatives are tingling with excitement to see their expansionist view of U.S. power in the world so enshrined (and all dissenters removed from the Cabinet). But as Stephen Hayes of the neocon magazine The Weekly Standard said on NBC’s Meet the Press, "I think you have to be practical about these things at the same time." Oh yes, "practical," and therein lies the rub. And the Bush administration will decide what practical means.

Will democratic reformers in Saudi Arabia and Egypt start getting encouraging calls from the White House and the feudal Arab regimes that trample freedom and liberty start getting pressure? What about Pakistan or the Asian dictators who have signed up to support the United States in the war on terrorism as we look the other way while human rights are abused in their countries? Will Israel finally be held accountable for the daily humiliation of every Palestinian at military checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza?

Most important, if the war in Iraq is the "practical" expression of George Bush’s theology of liberty and freedom, the world is in serious trouble. A war justified with falsehoods, conceived in confusion, and carried out in arrogance has now degenerated into chaos. Yet the war’s neoconservative defenders still cite Iraq as the archetypal action in America’s mission of freedom.

If Iraq is the best example of the Bush doctrine, pre-emptive and mostly unilateral war has become the preferred means of defending freedom. Many have rightly pointed out that having a mission of freedom is not a new idea in American history. But John Winthrop’s "city on a hill" points more to a strategy of leading by example. America’s slow and steady progress toward freedom and human rights for all its citizens has indeed had a profound influence on the cause of liberty around the world. In contrast to Winthrop, Bush offers a rocket launcher on a hill.

The Bush doctrine means new threats toward Syria, Iran, and any other regime that doesn’t toe the U.S. line. Even democratic reformers in those countries worry about becoming new victims of the U.S. mission. Ugly Saudi despots rich in oil and friendships with the Bush family likely will be exempt while the civilian populations of other repressive regimes will suffer most from U.S. military action. There has still been almost no serious media discussion of tens of thousands of civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Bush foreign policy has a different religious name than just freedom. In its prosecution of pre-emptive war, the equation of God’s purposes with U.S. interests, and the neglect of global economic justice, there are other words that come to mind - such as hypocrisy, pride, and even idolatry. And many opponents of the Bush administration’s war policies, here and abroad, will frame their dissent in the name of other religious values - words such as integrity, humility, and peacemaking.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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