The Mighty and the AlmightyReflections on America, God, and World Affairs
Harper PerennialCopyright © 2007 Madeleine Albright
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780060892586
The Mighty and the Almighty
I had watched previous inaugural addresses, but the first one I truly took in was John Kennedy's in 1961. My brother John, who was in junior high school, played the trumpet in the Denver police band and had been invited to Washington to march in the inaugural parade. It seems that everyone remembers the snow on the ground and how the glare of sunshine made it impossible for Robert Frost to read the poem he had composed for the occasion. The new president, hatless in the crystal-cold air, his breath visible, asked us to "ask not." It was the speech about "passing the torch" to another generation. I saw it on television — that is how I experienced all the inaugural addresses until 1993. Then, and again four years later, I watched President Clinton deliver his speeches from the balcony of the U.S. Capitol. The words combined with the crowds and the view of the Washington Monument brought out the sense of history and pride in the United States that has done so much to shape my view of the world.
The inaugural address provides an American president with a matchless opportunity to speak directly to 6 billion fellow human beings, including some 300 million fellow citizens. By defining his country's purpose, a commander in chief can make history and carve out a special place for himself (or perhaps, one day, herself) within it. On January 20, 2005, facing an audience assembled in the shadow of the Capitol, President George W. Bush addressed America and the world. From the first words, it was evident that both he and his speechwriters had aimed high. "It is the policy of the United States," he declared, "to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." He continued, "History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty." The president concluded that "America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout the world and to all the inhabitants thereof." He might have added that, in the Bible, God had assigned that same job, in the same words, to Moses.
The speech was vintage George W. Bush, one that his admirers would hail as inspirational and his detractors would dismiss as self-exalting. It was of a piece with the president's first term, during which he had responded to history's deadliest strike on U.S. soil, led America into two wars, roused passions among both liberals and conservatives, set America apart from longtime allies, aggravated relations with Arab and Muslim societies, and conveyed a sense of U.S. intentions that millions found exhilarating, many others ill-advised.
Within the United States, there are those who see the president as a radical presiding over a foreign policy that is, in the words of one commentator, "more than preemptive, it is theologically presumptuous; not only unilateral, but dangerously messianic; not just arrogant, but rather bordering on the idolatrous and blasphemous." The president's supporters suggest the contrary, that his leadership is ideally, even heroically, suited to the perils of this era and in keeping with the best traditions of America.
My own initial instinct, particularly when the president is trumpeting the merits of freedom, is to applaud. I firmly believe that democracy is one of humankind's best inventions: a form of government superior to any other and a powerful source of hope. I believe just as firmly in the necessity of American leadership. Why wouldn't I? When I was a little girl, U.S. soldiers crossed the ocean to help save Europe from the menace of Adolf Hitler. When I was barely in my teens, the American people welcomed my family after the communists had seized power in my native Czechoslovakia. Unlike most in my generation who were born in Central Europe, I had the chance to grow up in a democracy, a privilege for which I will forever be grateful. I take seriously the welcoming words at the base of the Statue of Liberty; and I love to think of America as an inspiration to people everywhere — especially to those who have been denied freedom in their own lands.
As appealing as President Bush's rhetoric may sometimes be, however, I also know that proclaiming liberty is far simpler than building genuine democracy. Political liberty is not a magic pill people can swallow at night and awaken with all problems solved, nor can it be imposed from the outside. According to the president, "Freedom is God's gift to everybody in the world." He told Bob Woodward, "As a matter of fact, I was the person who wrote the line, or said it. I didn't write it, I just said it in a speech. And it became part of the jargon. And I believe that. And I believe we have a duty to free people. I would hope we wouldn't have to do it militarily, but we have a duty."
These are uplifting sentiments, undoubtedly, but what exactly do they mean? The president says that liberty is a gift to everybody, but is he also implying that God appointed America to deliver that gift? Even to raise that question is to invite others. Does the United States believe it has a special relationship with God? Does it have a divinely inspired mission to promote liberty? What role, if any, should religious convictions play in the decisions of those responsible for U.S. foreign policy? But perhaps we should begin by asking why we are even thinking about these questions, given America's constitutional separation between church and state. And haven't we long since concluded that it is a mistake, in any case, to mix religion and foreign policy? I had certainly thought so.