Kicking off his second four-year term, President George W. Bush Thursday delivered an inaugural address filled with the righteous resolve and soaring rhetoric that are music to his core constituency but will almost certainly grate on the nerves of almost everybody else, both here and abroad.
The speech, which was studded with religious references, was dominated by a sense of certainty and even triumphalism about Washington’s special mission to spread "freedom" and "liberty" words he used more than 40 times in an 1,800-word address throughout the world.
He even argued the country’s very survival depended on exporting freedom abroad.
"We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion," he declared, evoking the "mortal threat" posed by violence arising from "resentment and tyranny." "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands."
"So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," he said, adding, "This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary."
While insisting that Washington’s goal is "to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way" rather than to impose "its own style of government" Bush warned that his administration will not be shy about pushing its agenda.
"America’s influence is not unlimited, but fortunately for the oppressed, America’s influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom’s cause," he said, adding that "we will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: the moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right."
Traditionally, the inaugural speech, which takes place outside the Capitol, is used by presidents to set out their grand visions rather than their concrete plans, which are normally the subject of State of the Union address that takes place inside the Congress several days later.
Nonetheless, some analysts expressed surprise at the foreign-policy sweep of Bush’s vision, the almost total lack of specificity that it contained, and the almost total certainty with which it was expressed.
"It very much reminds one of John Kennedy’s inaugural address [in 1961] about Americans being willing to ‘bear any burden [in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty]’ and that’s what got us into Vietnam," said Jonathan Clarke, an expert at the libertarian Cato Institute.
Particularly notable, several analysts noted, was Bush’s failure to explicitly cite the situation in Iraq, except when he noted that "our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill, and would be dishonorable to abandon."
"While there were indirect references to sacrifice," noted Lee Feinstein, who heads foreign policy studies in the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), "his failure to mention Iraq explicitly speaks to the administration’s vulnerabilities."
Iraq represents a serious credibility problem for Bush’s insistence that Washington does not wish to impose democracy on other countries, according to Ivan Eland of the California-based Independent Institute (II) and author of The Emperor Has No Clothes, a realist critique of Bush’s foreign policy.
"When he says freedom must be chosen," said Eland, "that’s not what happened in Iraq. The Iraqis had no choice, because it was the U.S. government that decided to ‘liberate’ it. Now, they’re faced with what could be a full-blown civil war. Bush thinks it’s going to work out, but most experts don’t agree."
Indeed, according to recent polls, a growing majority of the public also lacks confidence in Washington’s mission in Iraq, and Bush offered nothing to reassure them Thursday other than to remind them that, "Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals."
"This really falls on a very divided nation," said Marina Ottaway, a democracy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), an influential think tank here.
"The speech was really tailored for hardcore Bush supporters, but for those who have become very skeptical, including many people who voted for Bush, the speech will be very difficult to follow. It declares the success of our policies at a time when there are an increasingly large number of people who see Iraq as a mistake."
Ottaway, who co-edited a new book on U.S. efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East, Uncharted Journey, also predicted that the speech is likely to be poorly received abroad, particularly in the Arab world, for what will be seen as its hypocrisy and double standards a point much echoed by other commentators.
"The rhetoric about the United States serving as a beacon for democracy and human freedom doesn’t jibe well with the resentment toward the U.S. that is building around the globe and with the chaos that has ensued in Iraq following the American invasion," agreed Charles Kupchan, a foreign-policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"If someone were watching this on al-Jazeera or al-Arabiya [television stations]," he added, "this speech would do more to incite cynicism about U.S. motives than alleviate it."
Kupchan and Clarke stressed that the absence of details as to how his administration intended to achieve its goal of eradicating tyranny and promoting freedom and particularly when to use military force made the speech an unreliable predictor of what Bush will do in his second term.
"If the United States opposes tyranny and supports freedom, who wouldn’t support that?" said Kupchan. "If, on the other hand, that agenda is carried out through a series of military invasions, then Americans and everyone else has reason to be quite worried about the second term."
John Gershman, director of Foreign Policy in Focus, a liberal-left think tank, had an even more pessimistic take. He noted the contrast between Bush’s speech and that of former President Woodrow Wilson’s second inaugural address, which also extolled democratic government as a top U.S. foreign policy goal.
"But Wilson framed that mission in terms of a concern of the ‘family of nations,’ decidedly not as a nationalist, unilateralist crusade of the kind that Bush is putting forward," Gershman said, adding, "(a)ny doubts that this second term will be marked by less Manichean, more nuanced approaches to foreign policy should be dismissed by this address."
"Bush’s agenda is even more ambitious than Wilson’s," noted Eland. "Wilson only wanted to make the world safe for democracy, but Bush wants to make the world democratic and to do so at the point of a gun, if necessary."
(Inter Press Service)