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Opinion: Bush's Freedom Speech Fell Flat

Miodrag Soric (dc)June 23, 2006

With his speech in Budapest on Thursday, US President George W. Bush attempted to latch onto an American tradition of great orations on freedom, but it didn't quite work out that way, says DW's Miodrag Soric.

Bush delivered his speech on Budapest's Gellert HillImage: AP

John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan: All of these American presidents delivered speeches in Europe on the topic of freedom. Above all, they called on the Soviet dictators to give freedom back to the nations of Eastern Europe. The support of the free world was guaranteed, as was resounding applause back home. On Thursday, President Bush attempted to follow this tradition with a speech in Budapest, but he didn't quite succeed.

The most important difference since the era of Reagan and his predecessors: the Soviet Union. The country once dubbed the "evil empire" no longer exists. Even if critics still rightly point to the Kremlin's human rights violations, the fact is that even Russia is on the path towards becoming a democracy.

Shaky comparison

The other point is that calls for freedom are much more effective when the speaker draws on the present-day situation. President Bush, however, drew on Hungary's unsuccessful 1956 revolt against communism. He tried to segue to the here and now with a comment on Iraq, the message being: Just as Hungarians fought for freedom in 1956, so Iraqis do today.

But this comparison, as with so many historical comparisons, flopped. It doesn't even bear thinking about what would happen if the Iraqis really were in a position to decide whether American troops were welcome in their country or not.

In the Arab world, many compare the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 with the deployment of American troops in Iraq today. Bush would, rightly so, reject such parallels. Without the presence of US troops, Iraq would likely slide into a state of civil war. And even though this is the case, Bush was still unable to portray US troops as liberators in his speech.

Lacking credibility

George Bush in Ungarn Demonstration in Budapest
Amnesty International activists dressed as Guantanamo detainees for their protest in BudapestImage: AP

This is mainly due to the policies of the United States and its highest officials. Those who -- like Bush -- lay claim to a leading role in the fight for freedom and respect for human rights should at least be credible. The Americans simply don't have the kind of credibility they did back in 1956.

In recent times, American soldiers have too often been guilty of human rights violations, killing and torturing civilians. You can't claim to respect human rights and defend a camp like Guantanamo in the same breath. September 11, 2001 cannot eternally be used as an excuse as to why international laws should apply to all nations except the USA.

If anyone in Budapest deserves to be praised, then it's Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom, whose message to Bush was that the fight against international terrorism can only succeed if, at every step, the rules of international justice are obeyed and human rights are respected.