It is easy to criticize George Bush. He started a war on the basis of what in the rear view mirror seems to have been flawed intelligence. He has indulged a congress that has created a huge deficit. He is frequently viewed by his political adversaries as insufficiently sensitive, indeed as stubborn to the point of arrogance. He would not from my parochial point of view make very good dinner company, being as he is a combination of Yale, up-east wealth, Midland oil money, and evangelical religion, all things beyond my ken.

These things duly noted, George Bush is the advocate of a great and just idea at the imperial moment in the history of the United States. The armies of the United States are in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Macedonia, Korea, and Germany because we are an empire. Empire is the form politics takes when a country, a patria, projects its power beyond its borders. That this occurs in human affairs with predictable regularity is both providential and ironic; providential because at a certain stage in the lives of nations empire is likely to occur, ironic because empire is seldom chosen in any simple sense and in the long run may be damaging to the country it represents. And ironic as well because imperial power, which may be born of a lust for domination, may also be at least in part the result of virtue, of the ability of a society to govern itself well, to organize its efforts effectively, and to provide abundance. Sometimes imperial exercises are rooted in religion. The Islamic empire that stretched from Spain to Indonesia was intended to bring the blessings of Islam to subject peoples, and if their rhetoric is to be believed every colonial advance of the European powers into the New World was motivated by a desire to bring Christianity to Native Americans. Even the Russian empire was presented as the inevitable advance not of an army but of an idea.

In fact the creation of empires is motivated by ideas and circumstances too complex to catalog. In part empire building is motivated by a desire for political stability, even peace. If you are in Rome and the Volsci persist in raiding your town, you may finally use Roman power to bring the Volsci under Roman authority. But beyond the Volsci are the Samnites, and beyond them is Capua. And across the sea there is Carthage, then Egypt, then Britain. Empire may also be, and in modern times almost always has been, motivated to some degree by the often illusory dream of economic advantage. It was British policy that trade without compulsion was desirable, but trade based upon compulsion was sometimes in the imperial interest. Virginia was a for-profit mercantile adventure, and so little were the British interested in actually governing India that the enterprise was left in the hands of the East India Company from 1625 to 1773.

The dangers of empire to the founding country are manifest. Empire presupposes a belief in the superiority of one’s own civilization that courts hubris, especially if it is true. The empire may provide opportunity for an overpopulated upper class as in Rome and Britain, but it is always draining power and competence from the center to the periphery. Empires often fail to win the consent of the governed, so that maintaining empire may become an exercise in force of arms leading finally to either admission of failure or brutal suppression, as with Roman power in Judea and Carthage. But often empires are seen by their subjects as blessings. Many of the Germans along the northern frontiers simply wanted to pillage; others wanted to move into the Roman Empire to enjoy its relative peace and prosperity.

The United States is now an empire. Protests against our imperial enterprise began early, with an outcry against the foolishness of the admittedly unconstitutional Louisiana Purchase, and continued throughout the nineteenth century with Whig objections against westward expansion during the 1840s, doubts about the role the United States played in colonizing the Philippines, and America First movements intended to counter American involvement in European wars. None of these was effective, because becoming an empire is not the result of a conscious policy but of circumstances, necessity, noble motives, and self-interest. Understanding this is background to any reasonable judgment about George Bush’s idea.

Throughout the run up to the Iraq war and ever after, Mr. Bush has talked about democracy. I do not believe that this rhetoric is entirely, or even substantially, cynical, although it may in part be an apology for a war begun for less noble motives. And perhaps one cannot know precisely what President Bush means by democracy. He probably does not intend to encourage the march toward popular sovereignty that the Greeks saw as the last stop on the road to tyranny. He has, however, for whatever reasons, gotten one thing right. What he has gotten right is not a political point, not a conservative-liberal issue, but at least the ghost of a philosophical point that might have been taken out of the Summa theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Beneath all the talk about freedom there is a presupposition, and it is that there is in human nature an indelible shape that unites all mankind, a shape that may be obscured but not destroyed. Called the natural law by philosophers and theologians, this universal shape is not always easy to see. It may be obscured by faulty education or tradition or false religion. Do the Chinese, who seem content to be governed by an iron-clad gerontocracy that has not changed much since the second millennium bc indeed have the same human nature as the Italians, for whom rules are often just suggestions? Is it true that the Russians like tyranny; hard as in the case of Stalinism, softer but no less real under Mr. Putin? One suspects that Mr. Bush would answer each of these in the negative, believing as he does that every person has the natural right to pursue truth and goodness without coercion. In politics this means that although government may derive its authority from God, just government must rest on some significant degree of consent.

Of course in America the president’s defense of freedom is obscured by a history in which freedom means many things. It may mean what the Federalists called ordered liberty. It may mean what Rousseau called freedom, which seems to have been the untrammeled right to indulge one’s choices. But the very fact that an argument as to just what freedom is exists, suggests that it is a fundamental human category, and Mr. Bush has discovered, developed, or stumbled upon this important idea. Perhaps George Bush learned to value freedom at Yale, although the notion that he was taught at Yale that human nature has a permanent shape is unlikely. More probably, George Bush’s advocacy of freedom is an implication of his Christianity. But somewhere along the way learn it he did, and it has become an article of evangelical faith. The Middle East may come unstuck in an instant, but in some way, Aquinas implicitly in hand, the president is determined to establish the idea that freedom is a universal desire and a fundamental condition for a just society. So fundamental is freedom that God has steadfastly refused to take it away from a fallen world in which freedom has led and still leads to destruction. But a more significant kind of destruction would be the destruction of the human person. On the day after the Fall, God might have concluded that the great experiment had failed. He might have prevented the whole fiasco by recreating man without freedom. He might have skewed the result by not only telling our first parents that if they disobeyed they would die but also by showing them realistic visions of hell. But the Lord God almighty chose to be known by reason and faith on the part of free men and women. God is not coercive in the matters that are most important, which leads Bible-believing Christians like the President to the conclusion that man has the responsibility not to be coercive with respect to other men and to defend human freedom with whatever power one possesses.

In this pursuit Mr. Bush has wandered upon some very uncertain moral territory. Although the idea is never stated very clearly, he is assuming that there is a fundamental dimension of human knowledge that is not immediately dependent on revealed knowledge of the Blessed Trinity or submission to the will of Allah. The importance of this idea for postmodernity can hardly be overstated. It is the only possible basis upon which a tolerable civil society can be built among a population that includes Catholics, Presbyterians, Arab secularists in the United States; Muslims, Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites, and Christians in Iraq, and in a world that includes all these things and many more. One of the great difficulties of Islamic society has been the general absence of an explicit source of this idea that freedom is a precondition of that natural shape of justice that is rooted in human nature. If there is no realm in which the common reason of mankind moves, if every action is immediately theological, and if God matters most, as is proper, there can be nothing but warfare among those of differing convictions; everyone who differs being not only an infidel but a blasphemer.

If freedom is the most fundamental human category, the condition for any morally significant action, what of the order that makes the just life possible? In the end order must be an expression of freedom, because finally order must be chosen, or, in the case of organic societies, assumed. It was Pericles’ boast that Athenians were the greatest Greeks because they were self-commanding men, men in whom the form of the good had been chosen or accepted, not, like the Spartans, men who had been made good citizens by coercion. The link between freedom and order is education, not merely knowledge in the modern secularist sense, but education of the heart. Every pre-modern society knew that educating its citizens for virtue was the primary duty of the civilization. Education illustrates, teaches, encourages, exhorts, praises and blames; but it proceeds on the assumption that neither conscience nor intellect can justly be coerced. True education always defends patience against the claims of perfect and immediate order, since order must be learned and chosen. In the public square one of the great considerations in American history has been the duty of law to teach. Libertarians like Mr. Jefferson leaned toward the view expressed by the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which proclaims the right of every person to do as he chooses so long as his action does not interfere with the rights of another. Jefferson famously proclaimed that it made no difference to him whether his neighbor believed in one god or twenty. We now know that Mr. Jefferson was mistaken. The end of Mr. Jefferson’s moral philosophy is the low level, undeclared war of each against all. A justice of the Supreme Court has written that every citizen has the right to determine the meaning of life, with the implication that this right is sufficient grounds for the destruction of the unborn or for the parodying of the sacrament of marriage.

On the other hand there has been the view that the first purpose of law is not to punish but to teach. The underlying difficulty is that freedom means more than one thing. For modern mothers to be able to render themselves sterile, and, that failing, to kill their children, seems the most fundamental freedom to some Americans. For executives not to be able to make sums of money equal to the budgets of small nation-states seems to be tyranny. Having won one round, Aquinas in hand, if Mr. Bush is to finish the job he will have to face the possibility that freedom may mean the coercive destruction of all that shadow of the good that inhabits Islamic society, and its assimilation to western liberalism. This threat is the power in Osama bin Ladin’s jihad. It may be that there are Iraqis, not fanatics, who do not view western liberalism as liberation. In fact, setting aside the murderous fanaticism of the Wahabbis, Islam is a mixed bag that as a system is destructive, but which in its parts contains reminiscences of fundamental truths. Moslems are not atheists. Islam’s surreal defense of the family is the fatal corruption of a good the West is in danger of forgetting. Islam’s insistence that women only occupy their traditional domestic domain, enforced always by intimidation and occasionally by murder, is a manifest, intolerable injustice built upon a fact of human nature that the West has chosen to ignore.

Whether freedom in Iraq will mean the destruction of every public value in the name of moral libertarianism, as is increasingly the case in the West, whether it will prove impossible to locate the idea of freedom within Islam, or whether the idea of freedom George Bush found in the Bible or St. Thomas just might be established with partial success, changing the lives of millions and indeed making the world a safer place, is still unclear. We can only pray for the last, it being the only alternative to perpetual jihad.

Whatever the outcome in Iraq, it will remain true that the empire of the United States is an unavoidable work of providence, a danger, an opportunity, a fact. The United States is not and cannot now be Portugal or Luxembourg. It cannot even behave like Canada, like Gaul offering moral advice to the government that kept the northern barbarians out of Gallic vineyards for four centuries. All that can be hoped is that in this imperial moment hubris will be checked by restraint. The idea of freedom that the President represents is also a fact, and advocating this fact with the power of empire is not pointless, wicked, or cynical. Oddly, those who seem to see this most clearly are the soldiers on the ground. If the reenlistment rate means anything, it suggests that they see a morally significant issue and a noble effort that is obscure to those of us who sit, like Romans of the fifth century, surrounded by the culture of wealth and comfort, enlapped, at least temporarily, by peace, all secured for us by the armies on the Rhine.