It has been almost four years since George W. Bush’s presidency ended. Unfortunately, it increasingly appears that Bush did permanent damage to this nation’s political vocabulary and understanding. Rather than repeal his worst precedents, Barack Obama used them as launch pads for his own abuses. And the scant discussion of Obama’s power grabs in this fall’s presidential campaigns illustrate how Bush’s abuses have become the new norms.
Perhaps Bush’s worst damage to the American constitutional heritage was his continual defining down of freedom. His vision of freedom was the opposite of that of the Founding Fathers. For Bush, the survival of freedom required unleashing government power to preemptively destroy any potential enemy of freedom or America. “Bush freedom” required that neither Congress nor the federal courts be able to curb the power of the executive branch. James Madison’s carefully crafted checks and balances seemed as anachronistic and subversive as taking a flight while carrying a pocket screwdriver. Bush’s concept of freedom was similar to that of many authoritarian rulers throughout history who promised future bounties of liberty after the latest emergency crackdown.
In his 2002 State of the Union address, after bragging about victory in Afghanistan, Bush proclaimed, “We have shown freedom’s power.” Every B-52 bomber and every 15,000-pound daisycutter bomb had become as much a symbol of American freedom as the Bill of Rights. For Bush, the Pentagon budget was one of the clearest measures of America’s devotion to freedom. At a 2002 Republican fundraiser in Connecticut, he observed, “That’s why my defense budget is the largest increase in 20 years. You know, the price of freedom is high, but for me it’s never too high because we fight for freedom.”
“Bush freedom” was based on trust in almost all governments. His “world freedom” campaign did not aim to make governments less oppressive: instead, it provided U.S. military aid and tax dollars to support almost every government’s effort to crush opposition. In his view, freedom was something that can occur only after governments seize enough power to crush all terrorists, or would-be terrorists, or potential terrorists, or suspected terrorist sympathizers.
“Champions of freedom”
Bush tossed freedom accolades to some of the world’s most oppressive governments. Uzbekistan was among the most barbaric of former Soviet republics, renowned for vicious prosecutions of anyone who attended private Muslim prayer groups or distributed literature not preapproved by the government; the government boiled alive dissidents and other suspected enemies of the regime. Yet in September 2002 Bush sent Uzbek President Islam Karimov a letter proclaiming his readiness “to work together to create a world which values people and promises them a future of freedom and hope.” Karimov may have used some of the U.S. aid he received to slaughter 500 peaceful demonstrators in 2005. (The Bush administration blocked international efforts to condemn Karimov for the massacres.)
The government of Kazakhstan, another central Asian tyranny, collected more than $100 million in U.S. government handouts during Bush’s presidency, despite that government’s record of torture and “extrajudicial killings,” in the State Department’s euphemism. Yet Bush issued a joint statement with Kazakh ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev pledging to “reiterate our mutual commitment to advance the rule of law and promote freedom of religion and other universal human rights.” Shortly after Bush hailed the Kazakh government, it shut down 30 newspapers and television stations and roughed up and arrested journalists because the media had exposed the Kazakh president’s billion-dollar Swiss bank account. U.S. aid to the Kazakh government soared after it destroyed the independent media.
Nations whose governments kowtowed to the U.S. government were by definition free. On May 10, 2005, Bush visited Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and told an adoring crowd that “Georgia is today both sovereign and free and a beacon of liberty for this region and the world.” Georgia had become a democracy a mere year and a half before. The government had yet to reach Jeffersonian standards, owing to pervasive torture, killings of dissidents and potential opponents, and jailings of people without charges. Human Rights Watch reported that Georgia’s government was “one of the most corrupt in the world … and has a record of persistent and widespread human rights abuses.” But, because the government sent troops to Iraq and permitted U.S. troops to base themselves in the country, Georgia was a “beacon of liberty.”
Bush exploited and twisted the word “freedom” to cover whatever policy he was pushing at that moment. Perhaps his clearest corruption of the meaning of “liberty” was his endless invocations of the word to sanctify his foreign aggression and war on terrorism. He declared in July 2003 that because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, people are “going to find out the word ‘freedom’ and ‘America’ are synonymous.” Freedom was equated with U.S. military triumphs — with the imposition of the will of the U.S. government on foreign peoples. In his second inaugural address, Bush invoked freedom and liberty more than 40 times. But none of his comments was in reference to restrictions on U.S. government power. Instead, they sanctified the president’s authority to forcibly intervene abroad wherever he believed necessary. In a televised speech from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in June 2005, he invoked freedom and liberty more than 20 times to sanctify the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
The war on terrorism was a war for freedom, regardless of how much additional power governments around the world seized, because, for Bush, the threats to freedom came largely from the private sector — from private citizens, from malcontents, from rebels. The Bush administration seemed ready to target anyone it suspected was an enemy of freedom.
Unleashing the state
While gushing praise of freedom at almost every opportunity, Bush also sometimes scapegoated freedom. In a November 29, 2001, speech to federal attorneys, he proclaimed that “we must not let foreign enemies use the forums of liberty to destroy liberty itself. Foreign terrorists and agents must never again be allowed to use our freedoms against us.” But the record of federal investigations showed that the government had more than enough power and resources to detect the 9/11 terrorists before they wreaked havoc. The fact that numerous government agencies botched their duty to defend the American people became, in Bush’s eyes, a failure of freedom itself.
Bush portrayed unchecked executive power as the bulwark of liberty. In 2001, a congressional committee sought to subpoena documents on the more than 30-year involvement of the FBI with a killing spree by Boston’s Irish mafia that left 20 people dead. (The FBI obstructed justice to block the prosecution of its favored killers and to send innocent men to prison for life in their place.) He invoked executive privilege to thwart the subpoena, declaring, “The Founders’ fundamental purpose in establishing the separation of powers in the Constitution was to protect individual liberty. Congressional pressure on executive-branch prosecutorial decision-making is inconsistent with separation of powers and threatens individual liberty.” He could make such an invocation only because so many peoples’ minds have gone blank on the subject of freedom.
Bush encouraged Americans to judge actions of the federal government solely by his proclaimed goal — freedom — and not by what the government did. But the issue is not whether he personally loved or hated freedom. The issue is that he constantly invoked freedom in order to unleash government. He did not respect the freedom to protest in his presence, did not respect the freedom from being searched without a warrant, and did not respect people’s right not to be perpetually detained without being charged. Because he was devoted to government secrecy, Americans were obliged to take his word when he said he was championing freedom.
Bush’s message on freedom implied that only self-proclaimed or officially designated tyrants posed a threat to people’s rights and liberties. But the actual process of destruction of liberty rarely begins with trumpets blaring and neon warning signs flashing. Instead, freedom is destroyed piecemeal, one emergency edict at a time — and with continual public assurances that the government does not intend to go any further — unless absolutely forced to by events beyond its control.
Bush was a champion of freedom only if, as the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel asserted, the state is “the actualization of freedom.” Bush’s concept of freedom hinged on the presumption of absolute benevolence of both himself and the entire U.S. government. That notion of freedom required the nullification of all historical memory.
“The Restraint of Government is the True Liberty and Freedom of the People” was a common American saying in the 18th century. As James Madison warned, “The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.” Yet, according to the Bush administration, the only threat to freedom lay in insufficient federal power, too few foreign interventions, and not enough bombing abroad. The principles and precedents that he established pose grave threats to freedom as long as they are tolerated by the American people.
This article was originally published in the November 2012 edition of Future of Freedom.