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« The Angry Left: Not an Insult, But a Diagnosis | Main | If This Isn't the "Angry" Left, What Is It? »
January 21, 2005

The Speech: Media Reactions

First, the raves.

Fred Barnes:

First, it was eloquent, noting that freedom lights "a fire in the minds of men" and represents both "the hunger in dark places [and] the longing of the soul." More important, the speech laid out an extraordinarily sweeping and ambitious foreign policy for the nation. In doing so, Bush broke down the barrier between the foreign policy idealists, of which he and President Reagan are the most notable, and the realists, who include his father and his father's two chief advisers on foreign affairs, Brent Scowcroft and James Baker.

The most significant statement in the speech was simple and not lyrical at all: "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." That's quite a declaration, one likely to unnerve tyrants and autocrats and even a few allies around the world. But Bush wasn't kidding or just riffing.

Dick Morris (from O'Reilly last night; I'm sure he'll have this in his next column): He called it the greatest inaugural speech since JFK's famous "bear any burden" speech, and perhaps one of the five or six greatest inaugurals of all time.

Jon Podhoertz seems to appreciate the message, but stresses that this wasn't exactly a new theme for Bush:

IF you were listening to the commentary after President Bush's speech yesterday, you kept hearing the same adjectives and analyses from friend and foe alike: "Incredibly ambitious."

The president, everyone said, went farther than any of his predecessors in evangelizing for democracy and freedom abroad — in a way that places us on a direct path to conflict not only with the remaining regimes in the Axis of Evil but also with Russia, China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.


Still, the insta-comments were unanimous. Bush's speech was something new, something unexpected, something momentous.

Ehhh . . . not really.

The speech was certainly a rhetorical knockout, and will solidify the reputation of Bush scribe Michael Gerson as the most important crafter of presidential words in the modern era (even as Gerson transits out of the speechwriting job into a key role as a policy adviser).

But it was really nothing new for Bush.

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.

And now, an pan from Peggy Noonan:

The inaugural address itself was startling. It left me with a bad feeling, and reluctant dislike. Rhetorically, it veered from high-class boilerplate to strong and simple sentences, but it was not pedestrian. George W. Bush's second inaugural will no doubt prove historic because it carried a punch, asserting an agenda so sweeping that an observer quipped that by the end he would not have been surprised if the president had announced we were going to colonize Mars.

A short and self-conscious preamble led quickly to the meat of the speech: the president's evolving thoughts on freedom in the world. Those thoughts seemed marked by deep moral seriousness and no moral modesty.


To the extent our foreign policy is marked by a division that has been (crudely but serviceably) defined as a division between moralists and realists--the moralists taken with a romantic longing to carry democracy and justice to foreign fields, the realists motivated by what might be called cynicism and an acknowledgment of the limits of governmental power--President Bush sided strongly with the moralists, which was not a surprise. But he did it in a way that left this Bush supporter yearning for something she does not normally yearn for, and that is: nuance.


Ending tyranny in the world? Well that's an ambition, and if you're going to have an ambition it might as well be a big one. But this declaration, which is not wrong by any means, seemed to me to land somewhere between dreamy and disturbing. Tyranny is a very bad thing and quite wicked, but one doesn't expect we're going to eradicate it any time soon. Again, this is not heaven, it's earth.


And yet such promising moments were followed by this, the ending of the speech. "Renewed in our strength--tested, but not weary--we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom."

This is--how else to put it?--over the top. It is the kind of sentence that makes you wonder if this White House did not, in the preparation period, have a case of what I have called in the past "mission inebriation." A sense that there are few legitimate boundaries to the desires born in the goodness of their good hearts.

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.

I don't quite side with Noonan, but I do understand what she's getting at.

Let us stipulate that a "forward strategy for freedom" is a perfectly good idea in the abstract, and certainly wonderful rhetoric.

The problem is that, no matter how sweeping and powerful Bush's rhetoric or idealism, realpolitik will always be an important part of our foreign policy. For two hundred years, we have sided with bastards on the theory that they were at least less ruthless or dangerous than the other bastards who opposed them; certainly Bush doesn't intend to abandon that strategy now, does he?

I've had this argument with numerous "idealistic" (read: non-reality based) lefties a hundred times. They are forever blaming us for dealing with Saudi Arabia, Iraq, etc.; they just never seem to grasp or at least admit that the world is frequently one of bad choices, choices between bad and worse, not bad and good. Sure, we'd all like to side with the Moral and Democratic Angels in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and pre-war Iraq; but where are they?

The "idealistic" take on foreign policy -- a Chomskyite one, quite frankly -- supposes a Good Option for each foreign policy question, and yet rarely is able to announce what that Good Option might be. We shoud always side with the White Hats, they say; but when asked to point out where the White Hats may be, they quickly change the subject to Rumsfeld's handshake with Saddam Hussein.

So: What are we to make of Bush's rhetoric? I find it preposterous that he's going to stop dealing with the bastards who are actually helping us in the War on Terror-- Pakistan, of course, and, less so, Saudi Arabia. I can't imagine he will make enemies of those who are (ahem) allies, simply because they treat their people viciously and non-democratically.

And, let's face it-- do you really want a truly democratic Saudi Arabia or Pakistan? I hate to piss in the punch bowl, but I fear what those countries would become if their people really had their way.

So the rhetoric was good. And yes, it's important public diplomacy; there will be some oppressed people, and hopefully some people determined to grasp freedom, who will take courage from Bush's words.

But what, ultimately, does it mean? We really will not be fighting tyranny all over the world. We can condemn it; we can make it a central rhetorical point; but we won't be taking active steps to fight tyrants in any but a handful of countries--- countries which actually threaten us, of course, like Iran and Syria.

And that's just realpolitik, not idealism.

And we certainly will not be pushing for free and open elections in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia any time soon.

So while Bush's basic point may be an interesting one, I think it was greatly overstated. Perhaps that's excusable, when one is making a thematic address. But to the extent he means it, it's truly a Mission Impossible and not one, I have to confess, I'm especially eager to undertake.

And to the extent it's empty rhetoric-- well, he can be excused for that, but in that case it isn't especially meaningful.

Although Bush has always been championing freedom as an answer to the ever-popular question "Why do they hate us?," I think the Administration has backed into putting forward this theory so vigorously due to the failure to find WMD's in Iraq. Without proveable stocks of WMD's, the Bush Administration needed an alternate justification. And yes, while they always talked up spreading freedom to those living in resentment and misery, it seems to have transformed from a secondary theory to the primary one, and very nearly the only one.

Let me put it another way. For a long time I've taken the following position on foreign policy: America's interests first, hopefully when combined with an objectively humane purpose. But, where America has strong interests, the humane purpose requirement can be relaxed. (Works the other way too: If there's an enormously important humane purpose, of course America should help out, even if it only marginally serves our interests.)

I don't think I've changed my mind on that simply because the President has announced the sort of completely-idealistic foreign policy I used to scoff at. If it was a silly theory when spouted by Chomskyites, how does it become valid just because a conservative President for whom I voted announces it?

I take solace in the fact that I don't think Bush truly meant every word he said in his speech, much like most Presidents don't really mean every word they say in every inaugural ever given. Shifting the emphasis to freedom-- fine. Actually making the fight for freedom the central American mission-- sounds a bit too grandiose to me, and destined to fail.

The world is what it is. We will continue supporting thugs and bastards so long as the keep worse thugs and bastards under control. And "forward strategy of freedom" or not, I don't expect that to change.

And I don't know that I'd want it to.

Update: Scrappleface's Cliff's Notes on the speech are humorous, but he means every word.

Thanks to "Someone."

MSM Update: The Washington Post notes the disconnect between the breadth of Bush's rhetoric and the deals he needs to cut in the real world.

Reader Reactions... are definitely anti-Ace:

Someone writes:

Ace, I call bullshit. Those are the only two types of people currently likely to sniff power. The others are silent, underground, or in prison as dissidents. These people will thrill in the dark to hear Bush's words, as Sharansky and other gulag inmates did to Reagan's "Evil Empire" declaration. In this light I find Noonan's reaction -- and yours -- depressingly small.

Besides, we found Hamid freakin Karzai, did we not?

Ouch-- depressingly small.

Yes, we found Hamid freakin' Karzai, and we installed him-- after a war.

I don't think we'll be going to war frequently. Which means we will, yes, have to deal on a friendly basis with the governments in power in some of the worst states in the world.

As a shift in emphasis, I don't mind Bush's speech. As a long-term goal, it's commendable. My major quibble is that, in my humble opinion, it's plainly at odds with practicality.

At the moment, we need the Saudis. That may change; it could be that a democratic, non-Islamist alternative to the House of Saud emerges. And sure, were such a wonderful situation to arise, we can talk seriously about undermining the Saudi regime.

But until then-- we need to deal with the sort of people that Bush's speech would indicate we should shun and undermine like there's no tomorrow.

R. Dennis Corrigan cites a book by Sharansky, which I'm embarassed to say I've never heard of:

Bush’s landmark speech can only be understood and appreciated fully by referring to Natan Sharansky's compelling book, The Case for Democracy, now required reading for Bush's inner circle.

From this book, p. 88:

"...the mechanics of democracy make democracies inherently peaceful, the mechanics of tyranny make nondemocracies inherently belligerent."

True, but in the short to medium term, we have tyrannies in the world. It would be preferrable that they emerge into democracies; but what do we do in the meantime while we're waiting for that to happen?

Obviously, it serves our interest to undermine a clearly hostile tyranny, as in Iran and North Korea; but what about non-hostile, or even somewhat freindly tyrannies? Do we alienate them when we most need them?

"When Freedom’s skeptics argue today that freedom cannot be 'imposed' from the outside, or that the free world has no role to play in spreading democracy around the world, I cannot but be amazed. Less than one generation has passed since the West found the Achilles heel of the Soviet Union by pursuing an activist policy that linked the rights of the Soviet people to the USSR's international standing. The same formula will work today."

Again, this is a hope that will unfold, if at all, in the longer-term. What about the next five to ten years?

He then offers himself:

American troops in pursuit of UBL had to stand aside while indigenous elements took over the task. After months of no progress, Pakistan, still ruledby a military coup, declared that it was just too much bother, too upsetting to the locals to effectively prosecute the search and seizure of the most wanted man on earth.

Cozying up to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and not insisting on their recognition of the rights of their citizens, has proved to be ultimately a failed policy.

"Failed" in the sense that we obviously have not gotten all we wanted from these regimes.

But I can imagine worse failures-- such as Islamists completely taking over these countries.

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posted by Ace at 01:24 PM

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