WASHINGTON -- President Bush's new let's-end-tyranny crusade is being received with predictable skepticism in Latin America, where many fear he will use it as a pretext to advance U.S. interests at gunpoint around the world. I'm afraid that if it's not finessed, it may backfire.
In his second inauguration speech, on Thursday, Bush broke new ground by linking the future of democracy in the United States to the spread of freedom abroad. In other words, he turned the expansion of democracy into a U.S. national security priority. Call it democratic internationalism, if you want.
"The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands," Bush said. "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one."
Granted, Bush said later in his speech that "America will not impose our style of government on the unwilling." But that line was totally eclipsed by his repeated calls to spread freedom.
"S.O.S.: There is a nut in the White House," screamed the headline of Argentina's leftist pro-government daily Pagina 12. Brazil's daily O Globo ran the story under the headline, "Bush admits using arms to end tyranny." Conservative newspapers ran somewhat more detached headlines, such as, "Bush launches crusade against dictators."
But while Bush's new doctrine got high marks in Colombia, Central America and among a sizable part of the Venezuelan and Cuban population that hates their respective rulers, it may create more anxiety than goodwill in other Latin American countries.
First, by putting the spotlight on his new doctrine, Bush has created the fear in many Latin American countries where he's already seen as a cowboy that he may launch unilateral military actions in the name of freedom.
Until recently, few democratic countries would have objected to U.S. statements against troglodyte dictators such as those ruling Cuba, North Korea or Iran. But Bush's decision to go to Iraq without United Nations support changed everything. Now, even close U.S. partners such as Mexico and Chile are on guard against anything that smells of U.S. unilateralism.
"It's going to produce a defensive reaction in the region," a well-placed Republican who describes himself as a "pragmatic hawk" told me after Bush's inaugural speech. "It will make any of our policy proposals suspect."
As an example, my pragmatic Republican source said it will be more difficult for the Bush administration to get Latin American support for its candidate for secretary general of the 34-country Organization of American States, former Salvadoran President Francisco Flores.
Flores, a modern-minded reformer, is perceived by many Latin American countries as too close to the Bush administration. His adversaries will now argue that the new U.S. doctrine makes it imperative to have an OAS chief who can stand up to Washington.
Second, by drawing unprecedented world attention to his new vow to end tyranny in countries such as Iran and Cuba, Bush risks making his entire pro-freedom crusade vulnerable to criticism that he is not treating totalitarian U.S. partners such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or China with the same harshness.
There will be more media attention than ever on U.S. inconsistencies.
If Bush fails to denounce human rights abuses in Pakistan as forcefully as in Iran, there will be more presidents calling him a hypocrite and questioning his entire pro-democracy campaign.
Bernard Aronson, a former head of the State Department's Latin American office in the early 1990s, disagrees. "The biggest critique among Latin Americans will be that, in their experience, democracy is necessary but not sufficient, and that we're not caring enough about the agenda of poverty," he told me.
Maybe so. Maybe I'm reading too much into the whole thing, and Bush's new doctrine is nothing but a combination of sincere idealism and a belated effort to justify the war with Iraq in the eyes of history.
But the perception out there is that Bush is on a crusade. That's not necessarily bad, if he carries it out consistently and makes it clear that it seeks to be a collective diplomatic effort.
Otherwise, it could end up devaluing U.S.-cherished terms such as "freedom" and "democracy" in the eyes of the world for generations to come.
X Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/TribuneInformation Services.