President Bush's speech was impressive, and also frightening to those who suspect that he really meant it.
January 21, 2005
President Bush stood at the apogee of his life Thursday, and he rose to the occasion. A small man (in our view), who became president through accident of birth and corruption of democracy, he has been legitimized by reelection, empowered by his party's control of all three branches of government and enlarged by history (in the form of 9/11). His second inaugural address was that of a large man indeed, eloquently weaving the big themes of his presidency and his life into a coherent philosophy and a bold vision of how he wants this country to spend the next four years.
To summarize: Having won the Cold War, the United States was on "sabbatical." Then, on the "day of fire" — Sept. 11, 2001 — America learns that it is vulnerable. The "deepest source" of our vulnerability is that "whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny." Therefore, "the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." Furthermore, all people are entitled to liberty because "they bear the image of the maker of heaven and Earth."
And "it is the policy of the United States" to promote democracy "in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
Every president talks about America's sacred mission of promoting freedom, and Thursday's speech was peppered with caveats. But from the speech itself and the official spin around it, we are clearly supposed to understand that Bush means something new and more ambitious. And even — or especially — Bush's critics have le learned to respect his determination to do what he says he'll do, however much it may contradict the advice of those critics, or reality.
We take this president at his word. And the words are startling.
Bush's counterpoint of freedom and tyranny sounds like Ronald Reagan's, but the underlying analysis is much more radical. The threat to the United States, in Bush's formulation, comes not from the tyrants themselves but from the victims of their tyranny, who are radicalized by oppression and turn their hatred toward these shores. During the Cold War, the United States often supported or promoted tyrannical regimes, as long as they were anti-communist. This was realpolitik—the cynical, Machiavelliann approach adopted by presidents since Harry S. Truman signed off on the policy of containing communism.
Bush the Elder was a master practitioner of realpolitik, but the aspirations Bush the Younger declared Thursday are closer to those of Woodrow Wilson: freedom and human rights everywhere, actively promoted by the U.S., by diplomacy and leverage if possible but by war if necessary. And Bush's analysis sounds nearly Marxist, with its emphasis on the radicalizing effects of oppression. When he says that "common sense" dictates that "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one," he sounds like Jimmy Carter.
There are reasons to be impressed by Bush's new doctrine. There are also reasons to be very afraid. It would be good if this country's foreign policy more closely tracked our professed ideals. It would be disastrous if self-righteous hubris led us into bloody and hopeless crusades, caused us to do terrible things that mock the values we are supposed to be fighting for, alienated us from an unappreciative world and possibly brought home more of the terrorism our neo-idealism is intended to suppress. There is an illustration of all these risks close to hand. But the word "Iraq" did not cross the president's lips Thursday. He referred obliquely to the war there, only in order to say that our troops were fighting for "freedom" — which wass not the main reason they were sent over.
Ironically, the dangers of self-righteous hubris in foreign policy were a theme of Bush's first presidential campaign, in 2000, when he called for humility in our global ambitions and pounded the Clinton-Gore administration for what was then called "nation-building." Bush and other Republicans specifically objected to the use of American troops to promote democratic values, as opposed to national security.
Not only does Bush now think otherwise — in the moost sweeping terms — but he does not even acknowledge that there is a cost involvved or another side to the argument. He makes it sound simple. Terrorism is bad, freedom is good. Coherence comes easier when you don't sweat the details.
For example: It's a lovely thought that freedom invariably saps the will to plant a car bomb. But is it true? When freedom and democracy came to the Balkans, people were liberated to do atrocious things to other people in the name of nationalist enthusiasms. In the Middle East, there is always danger that a "regime change" — by election, rebellion or invasion — wilwill produce a theocracy rather than a democracy.
Bush, or his speechwriter, is not unaware of this, but the president does not brake for anomalies. Bush's rhetoric Thursday chased itself around in circles, declaring that America's goal - freedom and democracy, so that people can choose their own way — is not forcing people to adopt our way, which happens to be freedom and democracy.
In his brief discussion of domestic issues, Bush astonished again by endorsing a "broader definition of liberty" than the one in our founding documents. Bush's domestic agenda, in contrast to his foreign policy, is mostly a conventional Republican brew of tax cuts, deregulation and subsidies for undeserving businesses. But the language is more Democratic than today's Democrats. Liberty does not just mean freedom from government oppression. It means "economic independence," he said. This is civic religion as promulgated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his famous "Four Freedoms," but by no other president, Republican or Democrat, ever since.
In most other presidents, we would take all this talk with a grain of salt. But we suspect that Bush means it, which will make the next four years interesting, if nothing else.
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times