The left-liberal blogosphere has been in hyper-drive critiquing Bush’s SOTU address since last night. As I’m teaching a class on US empire, I couldn’t resist having my students read it. One of our questions: the particular distortions and factual errors of Bush’s address aside (see the Institute for Public Accuracy’s fisking), how different was his imperial rhetoric from Presidential speeches of yore?
Bush’s talk began and ended with references to America’s "historic long-term goal," its "destiny" to "seek the end of tyranny in our world." In doing so, Bush followed the long historical arc that begins with Jefferson’s memorable characterization of the United States as "an empire for liberty." I won’t subject you all to my lecture, but merely point out that President Clinton likewise linked U.S. hegemony with our "timeless" mission to spread freedom in his first inaugural address.
A hard question the left has yet to take up fully is: What came before and what comes after this particularly noxious imperial presidency? As JoAnn Wypijewski points out in her brilliant article for Harper’s on torture and the Abu Ghraib trials, so many left-liberals romanticize the U.S. pre-Bush. I think the kicker to her piece is particularly powerful:
We are moved by arguments to assign responsibility up the chain of command; to reaffirm the Geneva Conventions and the Law of Land Warfare; to establish clear rules in Congress limiting the CIA, foreclosing "black" operations, stipulating the rights and treatment of prisoners; to shut down Guantanamo and the global gulag; to drive Bush and Cheney and their cohort from office; in other words, to set America right again, on course as it was after the Vietnam War, a chastened empire still wielding a fearsome arsenal but with liberal intentions. We have not yet learned to pull up the orchard, to forsake the poisoned ground.