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THOMAS OLIPHANT

Bush and the limits of freedom

WASHINGTON
THE REAL political clash here last week did not involve Republicans and Democrats. It pitted Bush Bromides against Rice Realities.

During the mildly contentious hearings for her confirmation as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice could not avoid grubby details of foreign policy that belied President Bush's focus on freedom as convincingly as they demonstrated what a diversion from the war on terror the mess in Iraq has become. The press's fixation on alleged fireworks during her Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony missed a more troubling review of specifics. Take, for example, Africa.

According to US officials, there are significant terrorist organizations operating today with virtual impunity in northern, western, and southern Africa.

Members of Congress have been pressing a recalcitrant Bush administration to develop a comprehensive strategy to deal with one of the most dangerous (and heart-breaking) situations of all -- in Somalia.

Some Americans may remember military and intelligence activity in that area shortly after the 9/11 attacks, when there was great concern and confusion about where Osama bin Laden might be seeking sanctuary. Since that time, the attention paid Somalia has dwindled toward insignificance.

And yet as Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin has noted with appropriate alarm, Somalia is a "country" where only 11 percent of the kids are getting a primary education.

Feingold can cite many other facts about the region that ought to be alarming -- whether one's concern is human rights or terrorism or both. The typical child under 5 in Ethiopia exhibits the classic symptoms -- moderate to severe stunting of his development -- of serious malnutrition. According to UNICEF there were 1 million AIDS orphans in Nigeria alone -- and that was four years ago.

Putting the various elements together during a conference at Georgetown University several months ago, Feingold summarized a situation that ought to be a top-tier Bush administration concern -- either as a matter involving the freedom Bush said last week is so vital to the United States or because of the struggle against terrorism or both.

Feingold had just returned from one of his regular trips to the continent when he pressed Rice on the subject (he voted for her eventually). "We are not denying terrorist elements those territories," he said pointedly. "When it comes to Somalia, Algeria, or the activities that have occurred in Kenya, our focus on Iraq has been so single-minded. In fact I was told by some of our own officials in the region this past week that a lot of things have been waiting, because of the demands of Iraq in terms of dealing with this issue in northern Africa and East Africa."

In her typically lame response, Rice myopically gave no ground. She and Bush, Rice said, believe the "ultimate antidote" is the "freedom deficit," which requires "a different kind of Middle East."

"That is why we do see Iraq as being part of that war on terrorism," Rice said.

Another commendable attempt to see just how global the administration's freedom and terrorism concerns really are was made by Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island who inquired why the United States is so selectively passionate about freedom. He cited tolerance of humans rights abusers and authoritarians in Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan -- US pals all; he might have added China and Saudi Arabia for a more global perspective.

Rice took refuge in process babble. Different direction for different societies, she said, pledging to "keep this item on the agenda." In the classic explanation for inaction, she added that "some of this is a matter of trend lines and where countries have been and where they are now going."

President Bush picked a second inaugural speech topic that was neither controversial nor confrontational. That is a decision not without some merit, given the storm of controversy that is about to erupt when be begins to get specific.

However, his choice was also diversionary. Presidents Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt gave wartime inaugurals that were about the wars being fought. Bush avoided the war he is mired in to talk about a concept that is undeniably central but in his own administration, peripheral.

Moreover, he did this after 9/11, and did it often, and nothing happened while the war he waged unilaterally and under false pretenses came to eclipse his broader commitments. Rice's lengthy testimony demonstrated just how far from center stage freedom is right now.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com. 

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