At a time when his policies had been demonstrated to be disastrous for the vast majority of America’s people, and his main foreign policy adventures had proven to have been based on blatant falsehoods, George W. Bush’s re-election as president of the United States in November was a triumph of political manipulation; a fact, incidentally, recognised by many within the US itself. Although Bush’s supporters celebrated the fact that he had won a genuine mandate by attracting the majority of votes cast – unlike his gerrymandered election of 2000 – opponents pointed out that he had performed far worse in his second elections than any previous president to have served two terms. The fact that the US population is almost equally divided into his supporters and critics, and that many of those who oppose him are vehement in their dislike and contempt for him, encouraged some to hope that Bush might moderate the tone of his second term.
Such hopes were dashed on January 20, when Bush gave his inaugural address, a speech remarkable both for the beligerence of its general tone and for the key issues he omitted to mention. Speaking before an audience dominated by republican supporters, while tens of thousands of anti-Bush demonstrators were kept away by a massive police operation, he totally ignored the two issues that had dominated his first term – terrorism and Iraq. The omission of Iraq was perhaps understandable, given the problems that the US has there, and the fact that most Americans are very unhappy about their involvement there, although Bush might have been expected to boast of introducing democracy to the region. More surprising, however, was the fact that the words “terror” and “terrorism”, and the phrase “war on terror” ,were not mentioned either, although Bush and his administration had used the spectre of anti-American terrorism to create an atmosphere of fear to justify their policies throughout Bush’s first term, and particularly in the run-up to November’s elections. The suspicion must be that the Bush administration had learnt the lesson of its failure to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and are determined not to make more claims about the threats facing the US to justify their future policies.
Instead, Bush’s speech focused on a far more nebulous concept, “freedom”. In twenty minutes, Bush used the words “free” and “freedom” a remarkable 34 times, and the word “liberty” 12 more times. The general theme of the speech was that since 9/11, the US has a God-given mission to promote “freedom” throughout the world. In place of references to terrorism, Bush spoke of “whole regions of the world [that] simmer in resentment and tyranny”, associating these resentments to “a mortal threat” to the American people. “Ending tyranny in our world,” Bush declared, “is the calling of our time.”
In his speech, Bush did not mention any specific ‘tyrannies’ by name, but his new secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, had no hesitation in listing North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Belarus and Burma as the main “outposts of tyranny” during her confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It is not difficult to spot the main target of the US’s wrath in that list. Worryingly for the US’s traditional allies, Bush also returned in his inaugural speech to a theme that characterised the build-up to war against Iraq, the demand that other countries and international institutions should follow the US’s lead, regardless of their own sovereignty, the role of the United Nations, or the requirements or formalities of international law. Instead he issued an ominous warning to the US’s allies that “division among free nations” – ie. opposition to US policies– “is a primary goal of freedom’s enemies.”
The belligerence of Bush’s inaugural address is a clear indication of the intended tone of his second term in office. Despite widespread expectations that his policies are likely to be somewhat restrained as a result of the US’s embarrassing inability to capture Usama bin Laden or to secure Iraq, it is clear that the neo-conservatives remain determined to promote US interests as aggressively as possible. People around the world, and Muslims in particular, have every reason to be very wary indeed.