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.