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President Bush's Concept of the Universality of Freedom

In defending his decision to invade Iraq, President Bush has often said that people will someday wonder if Americans were true to their country's fundamental belief in the universality of freedom and were willing to act on it. VOA's Peter Fedynsky examines the notion of universal freedom in U.S. history and how some earlier presidents viewed America's responsibility to spread liberty abroad.

President Bush recently spoke about the universality of freedom to American troops in Iraq. He also raised the issue at a news conference after the U.S.-European Union summit in Vienna, with a group of African democracy activists, and in Budapest to the people of Hungary.

Bush said, "The desire for liberty is universal because it is written by our Creator into the hearts of every man, woman, and child on this Earth."

America's third president and author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, expressed in that document the idea that people are endowed by the Creator with an inalienable right to liberty. David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute think tank in Washington, D.C. He said, "Nevertheless, there are people who don't like liberty."

Boaz recognizes that slave masters and tyrants limit the exercise of liberty, but not the innate and inextinguishable desire for freedom by peoples everywhere, regardless of religious conviction. "As people, we have these rights, and that's one of the things that makes it universal because, of course, the Christian God is not universally worshipped in the world,” he said. “I do believe that liberty is a universal value and people can come to appreciate it through different religious and philosophical systems."

Most critics of the Iraq War do not dispute President Bush's goal of creating an Iraqi democracy but rather his use of military force to help liberate the country. David Boaz says many nations have paid for their liberty in blood, though he questions whether the army of one country should go into another in the name of freedom.

Boaz said, "I think it's hard to teach people freedom when you're militarily occupying their country. I think the United States should be a beacon of liberty. As John Quincy Adams said, "America should be friend and well-wisher to the liberty of all, but the vindicator only of her own."

John Quincy Adams, America's sixth president, warned Americans against engaging in armed struggles for the independence of other nations. Adams said the glory of the United States is "not dominion, but liberty" and that "her march is the march of the mind."

Nonetheless, President Woodrow Wilson sent troops overseas in World War One after campaigning on a pledge to keep America out of the conflict. German submarine attacks on U.S. shipping prompted Wilson to act. Often described as America's most idealistic president, Wilson declared, "The world must be made safe for democracy."

During his campaign for White House, President Bush pledged not to engage in nation-building abroad. He changed his position after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Nile Gardiner, Director of the Margaret Thatcher Freedom Center at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C., says President Bush now seeks to advance liberty as a form of national security. "President Bush clings to a highly idealistic international world view, combined at the same time, though, with a hard-edged sense of what is in the U.S. national interest," Gardiner said.

Bush says the Middle East without democracy will remain a place of "stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export." He also said, "The failure of Iraqi democracy would embolden terrorists around the world, increase dangers to the American people, and extinguish the hopes of millions in the region. Iraqi democracy will succeed -- and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Teheran -- that freedom can be the future of every nation."

Nile Gardiner of the Heritage Foundation says there are skeptics in the Middle East who confuse democratization with westernization. He notes, however, that democracy would allow Iraqis to develop their own values. "We are pushing very hard for an indigenous form of democratic society to be established,” he said. “We simply cannot impose our own precise vision of how Iraqi society should develop. Ultimately, it will be up to the Iraqis themselves."

Critics of Bush's Iraq policy say liberty should be spread through peaceful means, such as diplomacy, trade, and exchange programs. The President says Iraq is the front line in the war against terror, which poses a global threat too serious to ignore.