George W. Bush’s second inaugural address cynically invoked noble ideals for ignoble ends. In the course of twenty minutes, Bush used the words “free,” “freedom” and “liberty” no fewer than forty-nine times. Freedom lies at the heart of American political culture, and as groups from abolitionists to modern-day conservatives have realized, it gives legitimacy to political goals of all kinds. The historic rallying cry of the dispossessed, freedom can also be what the philosopher Nikolas Rose calls a “formula of power.” Bush speaks of freedom to justify both the invasion of Iraq–at a time when all other justifications have been discredited–and a conservative agenda at home.

Almost from the moment the twin towers fell, Bush has wrapped himself in the language of freedom. “They hate our freedom” became the all-purpose explanation for the attack itself and for subsequent worldwide disapproval of the Administration’s Iraq policy. The National Security Strategy of 2002, which announced the doctrine of pre-emptive war, opened with the statement that freedom, as Americans understand it, is “right and true for every person, in every society.” No variations and no exceptions.

Bush’s speechwriters have been reading American history. His address paraphrased some of the most celebrated orations in the nation’s past, especially those delivered during wars, hot and cold. It echoed Lincoln’s second inaugural, the messianic addresses of Woodrow Wilson during World War I, FDR’s Four Freedoms speech, the Truman Doctrine address to Congress, and Kennedy’s inaugural. Like Ronald Reagan, who loved to quote Tom Paine, Bush is a master at appropriating for conservative ends language associated with his opponents.

In some ways Bush’s rhetoric has become more conciliatory. “Tyranny” has replaced the “axis of evil,” the post-9/11 phrase that so alarmed the world. Perhaps hoping to prepare Americans for the likelihood that an Iraqi government dominated by Shiites will not call to mind Jeffersonian democracy, the speech disavowed the idea of imposing “our own style of government” on others. It rejected the idea of America as a “chosen nation.” Nonetheless, in the hubris of its assumption that the United States stands for unalloyed freedom and the divine right to remake the world, Bush’s address embodied the very outlook he claimed to repudiate.

The President’s actual policies, of course, belie his rhetoric. During the cold war, the “free world” included Latin American strongmen, dictators like the Shah of Iran and the rulers of apartheid South Africa. Today, talk of combating tyranny does not, it appears, apply to undemocratic allies in the “war on terror,” such as Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, or to oil-rich former Soviet republics like Uzbekistan, where the United States has established military bases. It ignores how our own civil liberties have eroded during his presidency.

Bush’s paean to democracy ignores the inconvenient fact that nearly every member of the “coalition of the willing” joined the invasion of Iraq in defiance of the will of its own people. Borrowing from FDR, Bush recognizes that “laboring on the edge of subsistence” undermines freedom. Yet he opposes measures like raising the minimum wage, strengthening labor unions and limiting the outsourcing of jobs to low-wage countries that would do much more to enhance “freedom from want” than the privatization of Social Security. The claim that the United States embodies the ideal of freedom in a titanic struggle with evil may be an effective means of mobilizing public support, but it makes it impossible to interpret international criticism of the United States as anything but hostility to freedom.

Despite Bush’s talk of “America’s ideal of freedom,” no single American definition has ever existed. Freedom by its very nature is a contested concept, to which different individuals and groups have imparted different meanings. The dominant definition today, a combination of political democracy, unregulated free enterprise and freedom of choice in personal matters, is the product of a particular historical moment, not a timeless set of principles. There are other American traditions that see freedom as resting on social responsibility both to guarantee every citizen’s economic security and to achieve justice for those long denied genuine equality. Bush’s critics should not cede to him the language of freedom, or act as if he has a monopoly on its meaning.