In 2002, a year after the terrorist attacks on new York and Washington, the Bush administration published a new version of “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America.” That document helped to signal the administration’s intent to launch a war against Iraq by asserting the readiness of the United States to engage in preemptive wars against its designated enemies even where it did not face an imminent threat.

Preemption was, of course, the focus of public attention on the National Security Strategy. Yet the document is also notable for the frequency with which it uses three simple words—“freedom,” “liberty,” and “rights”—to describe American policies and America’s position in the world. The opening sentences of the introduction by President Bush invoke a messianic struggle between light and darkness:

The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise. In the twenty-first century, only nations that share a commitment to protecting basic human rights and guaranteeing political and economic freedom will be able to unleash the potential of their people and assure their future prosperity.

Though I have devoted my career to trying to protect rights, this was a disquieting statement. I think of rights as limits on power. We delegate certain powers to the state to promote the common good, but those powers do not include—or so says the United States Constitution—the power to stop us from expressing our thoughts, or the power to punish us unfairly, or the power to torture us or invade our privacy, or to deny us the equal protection of the laws. These are our rights. We are free because we can exercise these rights. We enjoy liberty because we can secure protection of these rights when they are threatened.

A “decisive victory for the forces of freedom” is another matter. In this rendering, freedom is not merely a limit on power. Rather, it is an instrument of power. Cast as an ideology—almost fetishized—freedom is said to have triumphed over its enemies because of its superior virtue. This is made clear by the next phrase, which claims that, in the wake of this victory, there is only “a single sustainable model for success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.” Those overcome by the forces of freedom have no choice but to accept the only true faith.

Twenty years earlier, in June 1982, President Ronald Reagan made a speech to the British parliament in which he launched what he called a “crusade for freedom.” Reagan’s main focus at the time was on the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union and the armed conflicts in Central America that he saw as part of that struggle. As the speech did not deal with the Middle East, Reagan’s choice of words did not attract much comment at the time. Yet if you set President Bush’s introduction to the 2002 National Security Strategy alongside President Reagan’s 1982 speech at Westminster, it is apparent that Bush’s “decisive victory” and “single sustainable model” are a continuation of Reagan’s “crusade.” In both cases, “freedom” is a weapon of war to vanquish infidels. President Bush’s frequent assertions that terrorists hate America’s freedoms and are trying to destroy “our way of life” seems to reflect his view that al Qaeda sees the current struggle the same way.

Another significant aspect of President Bush’s introduction to the National Security Strategy is that it brackets “free enterprise” and “economic freedom” with political freedom. Indeed, the National Security Strategy goes on to say, “The concept of ‘free trade’ arose as a moral principle even before it became a pillar of economics.” For the Bush administration, free trade is not just good economic policy; it is, in common with other moral principles, sacrosanct. Those who do not support free trade are, therefore, guilty of sacrilege. The religious basis of the Bush administration’s commitment to this definition of freedom was underscored in the president’s second inaugural address, delivered on January 20, 2005, in which he said that “every man and woman on this Earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the maker of heaven and earth.” Freedom would triumph, the president continued, because “history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the author of liberty.” To disagree with this version of freedom, in other words, is to cross swords with god herself.

Aryeh Neier , a former executive director of Human Rights Watch, is president of the Open Society Institute.