When George W. Bush appeared before Congress on September 20, he faced a void. We barely knew the name of our enemy and hardly possessed the intellectual equipment to explain why that enemy hated us. Any president assigned to reassure the country would have invoked freedom with Bush’s frequency and intensity. But Bush didn’t just deploy freedom as rhetoric. He asserted it as an analysis. The attacks were the opening salvo in a long war between forces of “freedom and fear.” Freedom was the reason we were attacked—and only the march of global freedom could vanquish the perpetrators. By the time Bush delivered his second inaugural address, this reasoning had bloated into grand strategy. Our “ultimate goal,” he announced, was “ending tyranny in our world.”
In the course of enshrining freedom at the center of American foreign policy, Bush also opened a new front in the never-ending American culture war—that battle between Manichaean moralizers and spineless relativists, to borrow the dueling caricatures. Skirmishes erupted over whether French fries, museums, and even the very building to replace the World Trade Center should now have freedom implanted in their monikers [F1]. But this Kulturkampf came to transcend the flash points; it would distort and hobble both conservative and liberal thinking about the world.
For conservatives, the word has particular resonances. Freedom had been their rallying cry in the Reaganite war on the state, and after September 11, it acquired theological significance. Indeed, Bush spoke of freedom in these terms: “the Almighty’s gift.” Because they had extended this gift to the people of Iraq, conservatives congratulated themselves in the most ostentatious terms. When Iraqi election officials required voters to dip their fingers in purple paint in the country’s first free elections in the winter of 2005, congressmen painted their own fingers for the State of the Union address. The gesture didn’t seem like a wholesome act of solidarity, particularly as they pointed those purple fingers across the aisle. The critics of Bush’s foreign policy, after all, were nothing less than “appeasers,” as the Weekly Standard regularly noted.
This stance invited backlash. But just as the Bush doctrine overreached, so did many of its critics. From the behavioral sciences to Fareed Zakaria’s best-selling The Future of Freedom and, to a lesser extent, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, there were similar versions of a counterargument: that democracy is hardly an unqualified good; rather, it often bewildered citizens with a sea of choices. This was the theme of the most fêted political novel of the decade, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom [F2], which suggests that our dream of “limitless freedom” has yielded a miserable consumerist society. In the end, the book’s naïve idealist Walter Berglund concludes that American freedom is the “freedom to fuck up your life.”
But these critics don’t fully appreciate the irony of American freedom: It tolerates excesses but then punishes them. When Congressmen Bob Ney and Walter Jones wanted to punish Paris for failing to support the Iraq War, they knocked the French fry from the menu of the House of Representatives cafeterias. In its place, they unveiled the Freedom fry [F3]. But their stunt not only failed to strike a blow against Gallic pride, it was also subjected to international ridicule. By 2006, the House restored the French fry to its rightful name. Soon after, Ney lost his own freedom, imprisoned for complicity in the Jack Abramoff scandal. Jones, for his part, came to regret the episode. In fact, he came to regret supporting Bush foreign policy. On the wall leading to his office, he has hung photos of dead soldiers from the war he once championed.
Franklin Foer, editor-at-large for The New Republic, is working on a book about the birth of American liberalism.