John Lewis Gaddis graciously agreed to write a summary of his essay 'Ending Tyranny' (The American Interest, Sept.-Oct. 2008). Here it is.

Past US presidents were often harshly criticized while in office, but they are now judged more positively with the perspective afforded by distance. I am the ideal person to anticipate the verdict of history on George W. Bush: George and I are pals.

George is an intellectual: he reads my books. I'm an important historian: the President himself recommends history books to me. I pass his recommendations on to my students in Yale. This really impresses them.

George W. already has a great name, recalling the first George W. (Washington, of course). But to be remembered as a truly great president, he needs an enduring doctrine to his name – a Bush Doctrine that will stand comparison with the Monroe Doctrine or the Truman Doctrine. Obviously, 'pre-emptive war' won't do: not only would it be unoriginal, it would be an unwelcome reminder of the surprising failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And, given the course of events in post-invasion Iraq, a doctrine of 'spreading democracy' might today appear naive.

So, for the Bush Doctrine, I've settled on 'ending tyranny'. That phrase is to be found in a sentence of the President's second Inaugural Address, 2005:

it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

Now, it might seem here as if 'tyranny' is used casually as an antonym of 'democracy'. But that would be to miss an important nuance. The thing about Spreading Democracy is it sounds like imposing on others your idea of what's best for them. If instead you talk about Ending Tyranny, it suggests that you're freeing them to decide for themselves what form of government they want.

Of course, some petty objections may be raised. First, our wars might seem to others to be a tiny bit tyrannical. That's an unfortunate misperception. In fact, history played a nasty trick on the US: not only did it fail to give us enough evidence to suggest that we might not be able to replace a dictatorship with a democracy quite as easily as we have effected the reverse operation, it also left us in a position of unrivalled power after the end of the Cold War. With such power, it would have taken the self-discipline of a saint to respect international law and refrain from launching a war on Iraq. And we were bound to look bad when we did.

Then there are certain fundamental questions to do with 'freedom' and 'tyranny', for example, whether we should limit ourselves in any way by attempting to properly define these concepts. To ask such questions, however, is to get bogged down in philosophy rather than to adopt my magisterial historian's perspective – the view from space in which the supposed grievances occasioned by our foreign policy in the Middle East shrink to insignificance, and the true reason for the September 11 attacks appears in the only remaining visible feature: the great deserts of undemocracy. It is enough therefore for me to mention Isaiah Berlin's ideas of positive and negative liberty and to write inspiring rhetoric about the American Revolution (omitting Burke's obviously irrelevant thoughts on the French Revolution), while endorsing brand new discoveries about human society and the limits to what may be accomplished by military might.

Which leads to a further minor problem: if we interpret Ending Tyranny (as distinct from the Spreading Democracy) as a timely recognition that one cannot simply topple a tyrant and expect a democracy to appear, then the Bush Doctrine must be called the Bush Doctrine not on the basis of George W. Bush's decisions in office but rather on his words in that speech. One key sentence of that speech. Or at least the end of that sentence. Which, admittedly, does appear to contradict the beginning of the sentence, which is more suggestive of Spreading Democracy.

So do we fall back on the simpler explanation, that Ending Tyranny is just another term for Spreading Democracy? Not at all: with just a little more interpretive effort, we can say that the first part of the sentence is an appropriate acknowledgment of the unfortunate past, while the end of the sentence points the way to a more sophisticated pursuit of our foreign policy goals in future. In that case, those two words, 'ending tyranny', are far more historically significant than a war which has led to only around a million deaths. Indeed, so important are those two words that they will indelibly stamp George Bush's name on a doctrine that will mark future presidents as mere followers on a course he has set for this century.

As a final note, though my native modesty makes it a rather embarrassing chore, I am obliged in my duty to history to mention some background to that 2005 speech by George Bush. Fortunately, this disclosure will testify to my unique qualification to judge that Inaugural Address and to interpret it for posterity: ten days before his speech, I suggested those very words, 'ending tyranny', to George W. Bush's speechwriters. And they included them. In that immortal sentence.

I must leave it to others to decide whether my personal involvement in this matter will compel me to step forward onto a pedestal of my own in the grand halls of history. But I'm ready.

-- John Lewis Gaddis, Oct. 2008

While Professor Gaddis has made wonderfully clear the key points of his recent essay, the original should still be read: here, the air has been let out of it; with room to breathe, it acquires a grandeur to which no summary can do justice.

© Michael Breen, 2008