Bush Leaves Everyone Guessing

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, January 21, 2005; 12:21 PM

President Bush's lofty inaugural speech dedicating the United States to bringing liberty to every corner of the globe has raised a host of questions. Among them:

• Is he really committed to this?

• What is he going to do about it?

• Does this mean no more close relations with repressive governments?


• Does he mean like in Iraq?

In short, what's not at all clear is how his stirring script actually plays out in the real world -- or whether the White House has even thought that out.

And although Bush used the words ''free," "freedom" and "liberty" 49 times in the speech, he didn't once use the words "terror" or "war" or "Iraq" -- even though his first term was defined by terror and war, and even though American blood was still being shed in Iraq as he spoke.

The unanswered questions and things left unsaid are a major theme running through this morning's analyses and opinions.

The News Analyses

John F. Harris writes in The Washington Post: "The immediate question, presidential scholars and foreign policy experts say, is the same in Washington as it is in other capitals around the world: What to make of such idealistic and uncompromising language from an incumbent president?

"If taken at face value, Bush's words would imply nearly limitless obligations to confront all manner of autocrats around the planet, even in cases in which anti-democratic governments in the Middle East and elsewhere support U.S. interests. He made scant acknowledgment of the trade-offs he has regularly made, such as supporting repressive regimes in Asia as payback for their support in Afghanistan.

"More plausibly, most of the president's supporters maintained, he was intending not so much to describe a road map for the next four years as to make a provocative statement about the nation's long-term mission over the next several decades -- the 'concentrated work of generations,' as Bush put it.

"The implications of the speech were uncertain because the celebration of democratic values was harnessed to almost no specifics."

Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post: "President Bush's soaring rhetoric yesterday that the United States will promote the growth of democratic movements and institutions worldwide is at odds with the administration's increasingly close relations with repressive governments in every corner of the world."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Like all presidents, Bush centered his speech more on his goals than his means of accomplishing them. But it is his means, more than his ends, that ignite such impassioned division at home and abroad.

"Few Americans would quarrel with the twin ambitions that anchored Bush's speech: encouraging the spread of liberty abroad and increasing ownership and economic choice at home. But the looming question is whether Bush's policies are moving the nation and the world toward achieving those aims, much less at a price most Americans consider acceptable. . . .

"At least for now, emulating Iraq can't be much of a rallying cry."

Todd S. Purdum writes in the New York Times: "President Bush began his second term without uttering the words 'Iraq,' 'Afghanistan,' 'Sept. 11' or 'terrorism.' But those omissions seemed to be precisely the point, allowing him to cast the crises and controversies of his first four years and the ones he welcomes in the next as a seamless struggle in defense of the nation's founding creed: freedom. . . .

"It is for historians to judge how well Mr. Bush's actions have fit, or may yet fulfill, his words. There remains a wide gulf between his eloquent aspirations and the realities on the ground, from Capitol Hill to the Middle East."

Warren P. Strobel and Steven Thomma write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "President Bush proclaimed a bold, even revolutionary, foreign policy in his inaugural address Thursday, but he offered no specifics about how he plans to rid the world of tyranny, which tyrants he'll target or what other foreign or domestic goals he might be willing to sacrifice to promote freedom. . . .

"In the wake of his speech, is the president now willing to pressure China and risk a trade war that could raise the cost of consumer goods for U.S. citizens and hurt the American economy? Will he pressure pro-American Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a coup and whose rule is fragile enough as it is?"

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Would he go to the mat, for instance, to bring democracy to China? To Iran? Or work to stop the recent backslide toward authoritarian rule in Russia? How hard will he press for women's rights and free elections in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt? . . .

" 'It's all well and good to say you like freedom and don't like slavery. No one's going to disagree with that,' said Georgetown University political scientist Stephen Wayne. 'But when you have other people with other systems who behave in different ways, to what extent are you going to go and impose your views and values on them?' "

Ron Fournier writes for the Associated Press: "Not a word on Iraq. President Bush's inaugural address contained 2,000 words of passion and promise for his second term, but no direct mention of the war that could sink it. . . .

" 'Unless we get Iraq straightened out, and quick, anything else we try is futile,' said a senior White House aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid stepping on the president's inaugural message."

Here's Jeff Greenfield on CNN: "I think the model . . . that this administration may be thinking of is what Reagan did in Eastern Europe -- and he never invaded Eastern Europe, never sent troops there. He encouraged the dissidents. He told them we were listening to them. He believed, and there was some success here, that in places like Poland and Czechoslovakia those corrupt regimes would wither from within. The question is can you actually perceive that happening in a place like Iran, Pakistan, or even a place like Saudi Arabia?

"I think -- that's why I think the speech was, in my view, so startling. It is such an expansive goal, the end of tyranny everywhere. . . .

"And, one last thing. This is why Iraq, I think, is now, if it was a big deal before this speech, it's going to be an even bigger contentious deal after, because Bush's critics are going to say, 'Fine, we know your theory. The first place you tried this is in Iraq. How's that working out?' "

Peter S. Canellos writes in the Boston Globe: "Combined with the president's delivery, which was even more clipped and serious than usual, and the protesters heard in the background, the speech seemed likely to reinforce impressions of the president as forceful and resolute in the eyes of his supporters, but stubborn and repetitive in the eyes of detractors. . . .

"By stating that dictatorship breeds terrorism, Bush is reinforcing his strategy of attacking dictators rather than the groups that plan terrorism. Many antiterrorism specialists believe that as a way to attack terrorism, regime change is ineffective: The most threatening terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda operate outside national boundaries and can only be fought with intensive international cooperation."

TV critic Tom Shales writes in The Washington Post: "Historians reading the speech in the future, or people reading the transcript this morning in the newspaper, may well marvel at the language. Unfortunately, it will probably be more impressive in print than as Bush, in his usual baby-blue necktie, delivered it.

"Bush's capabilities as an orator fluctuate from speech to speech, and this time they were at low ebb. The delivery lacked heart and soul. . . .

"All politics aside, if Bill Clinton had delivered that speech, there would have been goose pimples from sea to shining sea. Bush didn't rise to the occasion, but neither did he fumble or seem insincere."

Cheney Drops a Hint

Of course it's possible that, for those wondering where we go from here, Vice President Cheney spilled the beans hours before the swearing in -- on, of all places, the Don Imus show.

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney said yesterday that Iran is a top threat to world peace and Middle East stability, accusing Tehran of sponsoring terrorism against Americans and building a 'fairly robust new nuclear program.' "

And there was more: "In the interview with Don Imus, the vice president made a rare admission, saying he had miscalculated how quickly Iraqis would be able to recover from Saddam Hussein's government and begin running their country.

" 'I think the hundreds of thousands of people who were slaughtered at the time, including anybody who had the gumption to stand up and challenge him, made the situation tougher than I would have thought,' he said. 'I would chalk that one up as a miscalculation, where I thought things would have recovered more quickly.' "

Here's the transcript and a video excerpt.

Editorial Roundup

Washington Post editorial: "Inaugural addresses are meant to outline large themes rather than prosaic programs, but Mr. Bush's text seemed exceptional in its untethering from the world."

New York Times editorial: "Mr. Bush's declarations about promoting global democracy ring true as a statement of American ideals, not as a claim for the legitimacy of any particular policies."

Los Angeles Times editorial: "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."

USA Today editorial: "There should be no disagreement over the underlying logic of Bush's words: 'America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.' The question now is how the president will apply that logic."

Wall Street Journal editorial: "This clearly is a President transformed by September 11. He has drawn the essential lesson of that day, which is that the U.S. cannot consider itself safe from the world's turmoil simply by ignoring it."

Chicago Tribune editorial: "President Bush spoke to a nation where political divisions run deep, a nation at war, a nation where many of its citizens sharply question the wisdom of his leadership. The president acknowledged that division, but he also delivered a stirring reminder that there are values -- democracy, liberty, freedom and opportunity -- that unite this nation."

Boston Globe editorial: "President Bush promised to expand the sphere of human freedom both at home and abroad. That is an impressive agenda, but it must be done with humility and respect for others. Otherwise it becomes an excuse to impose his administration's ideological agenda on Americans and citizens of other countries who do not define the word quite the way he does."

Philadelphia Inquirer editorial: "The cherished democratic ideal of freedom took on a grim cast in President Bush's inaugural address yesterday.

"While the President didn't come right out and threaten more military invasions in far-off lands, it was hard to mistake his combative message to virtually any undemocratic nation on the planet. Embrace liberty, he warned, or face the terrible swift sword of the most powerful democracy on Earth."

Washington Times editorial: "The president avoided the cynicism that consumes so much of establishment Washington. It's the cynicism which allows the president's critics to consistently underestimate his ability to lead -- and a vision of leadership is what the president offered yesterday. Cynicism has never once broken the chains of a slave nor, upon the ringing bell of liberty, inspire others to wonder, as the president asked, 'Did our generation advance the cause of freedom?' "

San Francisco Chronicle editorial: "As he delivered his speech, Iraq is engulfed in violence and uncertainty as elections approach, Osama bin Laden remains at large and there is no sign that Bush's policies have done anything to temper hatred and resentment toward the United States. If anything, it is building."

New York Post editorial: "President Bush stood tall before America and the world yesterday and marked the beginning of his second term with an affirmation of liberty that will resonate for years to come."

Dallas Morning News editorial: "His speech embodied everything that makes him the leader he is: unembarrassed religious faith, moral certitude, persistence, determination and self-assuredness."

Other Opinions

E. J. Dionne Jr. in The Washington Post: "If the real meaning of the president's words is that there are more Iraqs in our future, many Americans who share the president's love of freedom will say no. Stirring words, alas, cannot mask a flawed policy."

David S. Broder in The Washington Post: "If that seems a wildly ambitious agenda for a country whose citizens are increasingly discomfited by the unfinished effort to liberate one country -- Iraq -- it is.

"But it reflects one essential truth we have learned about Bush: his faith that the quest for freedom is a universal truth, rooted in human nature and intended by God."

William Safire in the New York Times: "Bush makes clear that it is human liberty, not peace, that takes precedence, and that it is tyrants who enslave peoples, start wars and provoke revolution. Thus, the spread of freedom is the prerequisite to world peace.

"It takes guts to take on that peace-freedom priority so starkly. Bush, by retaliatory and pre-emptive decisions in his first term -- and by his choice of words and his tall stance in this speech, and despite his unmodulated delivery -- now drives his critics batty by exuding a buoyant confidence reminiscent of F.D.R. and Truman."

Bob Herbert in the New York Times: "[I]n the fantasy-laden Bush realm, Iraq is a place where freedom is on the march. So why not raise a toast to freedom, and dance the night away."

Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal: "The inaugural address itself was startling. It left me with a bad feeling, and reluctant dislike. . . .

"One wonders if they shouldn't ease up, calm down, breathe deep, get more securely grounded. The most moving speeches summon us to the cause of what is actually possible. Perfection in the life of man on earth is not."

Scott Lehigh in the Boston Globe: "[A]s he begins his second term, this question recurs: Is the president operating from a remotely realistic view of the world?"

John Podhoretz in the New York Post: "The president's faith in what he called 'the transformational power of liberty' in his 2004 convention speech has been manifest in almost every major address he has given since 9/11."

William McKenzie in the Dallas Morning News: "His second presidential inaugural address flowed directly from his belief that God bestows dignity upon each individual. . . .

"Sadly, what was missing was much talk about humility, about our need to bend our knees to understand God's way. Without that, we mortal Americans are likely to miss the log in our own eye when we're trying to get the speck out of others'."

James Klurfeld in Newsday: "There is an oversimplification in his vision, a messianic streak that doesn't quite square with reality."

Jonah Goldberg in Newsday: "Bush . . . grounds his doctrine in the soil of American self-interest. . . . This has the priorities right. We fight tyranny because it is in our interest to do so."

Harold Meyerson in the American Prospect: "To be sure, extending the reach of liberty, democracy, and modernity to all corners of the world is a vision that transcends party in America. But how to do that -- and whether we are always and inherently the best agent for that job, much less whether we are the best agent when acting alone in a preemptive war -- is a question that divides us deeply."

Who's Free and Who's Not

And finally, to prepare you for the days and weeks to come, here, from Freedom House, the widely recognized arbiter of who is free and who isn't, a handy-dandy chart and map.

Check out that big swath of purple. And keep your eye on it.

© 2005 washingtonpost.com