You can expect to see a lot of headlines like this one, from Yahoo News: “Bush: U.S. Had Hand in European Divisions.” The accompanying Associated Press article, by Jennifer Loven, describes President Bush’s speech today in Riga as though its point were to apologize for Franklin Roosevelt’s performance at Yalta. Roosevelt’s performance was sorry indeed, but to read President Bush’s speech as an apology on that account strikes me as perverse.
You can read the entire speech here and draw your own conclusions. But I see it as another in a series of brilliant speeches, dating back to 2001, in which President Bush has outlined not only his foreign policy, but his–and our nation’s–philosophy. His purpose today, I think, was to locate his Middle Eastern policy squarely in the tradition that has animated America’s actions abroad since 1941. Implicit in his historical narrative is a rebuke to the liberals who oppose freedom and denounce the administration’s “neoconservative” foreign policy as a radical and unrealistic departure from America’s historical role.
Bush was observing, of course, the sixtieth anniversary of the fall of the Third Reich, and he reviewed Latvia’s honorable role in that struggle, and condemned Nazi Germany as an embodiment of evil and enemy of human freedom. The next step is where the speech got interesting:
V-E Day marked the end of fascism, but it did not end oppression. The agreement at Yalta followed in the unjust tradition of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable. Yet this attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability left a continent divided and unstable. The captivity of millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history.
These are the sentences that the AP focused on, and the criticism of Yalta is of course clear. It also may be unfair. To my knowledge, the United States was in no position to bargain for the freedom of the Baltic countries. Only later does Bush’s purpose in criticizing those who are willing to “sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability” become apparent.
President Bush then moves on to postwar Europe. He describes America’s role in a way that seamlessly blends the early years of the Cold War, dominated by the doctrine of containment, with our later efforts, under President Reagan, to roll back Communist aggression:
The end of World War II raised unavoidable questions for my country: Had we fought and sacrificed only to achieve the permanent division of Europe into armed camps? Or did the cause of freedom and the rights of nations require more of us? Eventually, America and our strong allies made a decision: We would not be content with the liberation of half of Europe — and we would not forget our friends behind an Iron Curtain. We defended the freedom of Greece and Turkey, and airlifted supplies to Berlin, and broadcast the message of liberty by radio. We spoke up for dissenters, and challenged an empire to tear down a hated wall. Eventually, communism began to collapse under external pressure, and under the weight of its own contradictions. And we set the vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace — so dictators could no longer rise up and feed ancient grievances, and conflict would not be repeated again and again.
Reagan is thus placed squarely in the tradition of Harry Truman, and American policy from the 1940s through the 1980s is seen as unified by an overarching quest for freedom. Meanwhile, the “realist” critics of Bush’s Middle Eastern policy are implicitly lumped with the betrayers of Eastern Europe. Next, Bush moves from the specific case of Europe to the worldwide advance of liberty:
From the vantage point of this new century, we recognize the end of the Cold War as part of an even broader movement in our world. From Germany and Japan after World War II, to Latin America, to Asia, and Central and Eastern Europe, and now to the broader Middle East, the advance of freedom is the great story of our age. And in this history, there are important lessons.
Finally, Bush makes his way to the Middle East, where, once again, his purpose is to put his own policy of advancing the cause of freedom squarely in the tradition that extends back, in an unbroken line, to Roosevelt and Truman:
For all the problems that remain, it is a miracle of history that this young century finds us speaking about the consolidation of freedom throughout Europe. And the stunning democratic gains of the last several decades are only the beginning. Freedom is not tired. The ideal of human dignity is not weary. And the next stage of the world democratic movement is already unfolding in the broader Middle East.
We seek democracy in that region for the same reasons we spent decades working for democracy in Europe — because freedom is the only reliable path to peace. If the Middle East continues to simmer in anger and resentment and hopelessness, caught in a cycle of repression and radicalism, it will produce terrorism of even greater audacity and destructive power. But if the peoples of that region gain the right of self-government, and find hopes to replace their hatreds, then the security of all free nations will be strengthened. We will not repeat the mistakes of other generations, appeasing or excusing tyranny, and sacrificing freedom in the vain pursuit of stability. We have learned our lesson; no one’s liberty is expendable. In the long run, our security and true stability depend on the freedom of others. And so, with confidence and resolve, we will stand for freedom across the broader Middle East.
President Bush thanked the Baltic peoples for their support of our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, thus coming full circle from where he began, and completing the identification of his current policies in the Middle East with America’s role in liberating Europe:
It’s no surprise that Afghanistan and Iraq find strong allies in the Baltic nations. Because you’ve recently known tyranny, you are offended by the oppression of others. The men and women under my command are proud to serve with you. Today I’m honored to deliver the thanks of the American people.
To a greater extent than any politician since Churchill, President Bush has set forth and defended his policies in a series of speeches that combine intellectual brilliance and philosophical gravity. Today’s speech in Latvia was the latest in this series, and, like the others, it will be studied by historians for centuries to come.
DEACON adds: Bush has been criticized for alienating our “friend” Russia by visiting Latvia and Georgia. But Russia’s problem with Bush’s visits to countries that the Soviet Union victimized shows how far Russia from being our friend Russia must remain given Putin’s aspirations for empire status. Recently Putin bemoaned the “tragic” demise of the Soviet Union. He sounds more and more like Nikita Khrushchev every day, as he insists that the Latvians provoked the Soviets to invade and when he derides the U.S. for not being truly democratic, citing the 2000 election. But at least Khrushchev was critical of Stalin.
The Middle East represents the subtext of Bush’s speech in Latvia, as John points out. But President Bush also recognizes that the western states of the former Soviet Union could themselves once again become a major battleground in the struggle for freedom