When President Bush set out on his present odyssey to gain support for the war in Iraq, one of his first stops last week was Salt Lake City.
Whether by happenstance or cunning political strategy, the stars were perfectly aligned for the visit.
Utah is one of the most conservative states in the nation. (Republicans unkindly jest that when the state's Democrats go to a convention they charter a small van.) Utah is Bush country, going for him in two presidential elections. His present approval rating in the state is about 65 percent, one of the highest in the country. To top it all, his principal audience was the annual convention of the American Legion, which brought 12,000 veterans to the city.
It was a made-for-Bush audience in a state highly supportive of him. So there was nothing but cheering and applause when he delivered such lines as: The United States will stay in Iraq "until freedom prevails," and when he told the veterans: "We are at a pivotal moment" in the ideological war between democracy and radical, Muslim extremism and terrorism that is "likely the key battle of this century."
To make sure that everybody got the message, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were also assigned to be in Salt Lake City, speak to the audience of veterans, and gain national TV airtime.
Bush critics say that with the midterm elections just two months away, such forays out of the White House to deliver support-the-war messages to audiences across the country are nothing more than politicking. Well, it is hardly surprising that a Republican president wants to see Republicans win in elections to the House and Senate.
But there are subtle signs, too, that Bush is looking beyond 2006, and even the presidential elections of 2008, to the matter of his own legacy and how he will measure up to previous presidents. His remarks are sprinkled with references to previous incumbents of the White House, and to the Founders of the nation.
In his address here, admitting that the US faces tough problems in Iraq, he reminded his audience that Thomas Jefferson found that the American road to democracy was not a "featherbed." He has been reading books about Lincoln, "Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power," and "Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural," as well as "Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different." In her remarks, too, at a private breakfast, Dr. Rice said she had been reading books about the Founders and the challenges that they faced in setting the United States on the road to democracy. Americans must have patience, she said, as Iraqis find their way to democracy.
In earlier speeches during his presidency, Bush has demonstrated that furthering liberty around the world is central to his foreign policy. For his second inaugural address he told his speechwriter that he wanted a "freedom" speech. The address contained 49 references to "freedom," "free," or "liberty." In it, he addressed the choice between "oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right." He declared: "Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery. Liberty will come to those who love it." He believes that freedom is God-given to every man, a belief that he reiterated to crowds that greeted his arrival in Salt Lake City.
While Bush maintains that his desire for freedom is universal, and that a free Iraq is critical to any advance toward freedom in the Arab world, some cynics argue that freedom is an alien concept in the region and can never flourish. As Danielle Pletka, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says: "Many engaged in the current debate ... claim that there is no latent desire for political or economic freedom in the Arab world and that these are Western constructs." But as Abdulkhaliq Hussein, an Iraqi exile with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London puts it: "Modern Western democracy has taken five centuries to mature ... So why do some people insist that the newly born democracy in Iraq should be perfect from day one or that Iraq is unfit for democracy?"
As Winston Churchill once said, "Democratic government is not perfect ... but so far, there is no better government than democratic government." Clearly, the quest for freedom in the lands of Islam is noble and should not be abandoned.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.