No one doubted that freedom and democracy would figure prominently in the second inaugural address of President George W. Bush. Three years into a global war on terrorism and nearly two into a deepening conflict in Iraq, foreign policy is once again front and center in the United States.
The real surprise is that, after taking the oath of office Thursday, Bush managed to sound more Wilsonian than former President Woodrow Wilson himself. His speech, powerfully moving at times, included a pledge to “support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.” According to The Washington Post, White House officials have since gone out of their way to assure critics that Bush’s soaring rhetoric should not be taken literally.
The result is a speech that needed only 48 hours to ring hollow. U.S. credibility – already hobbled by “torture” memos, Abu Ghraib and vanishing Iraqi weapons of mass destruction – has taken yet another needless body blow.
Inaugural speeches have always had their fair share of idealism. After all, a ceremony that typically marks the peaceful transfer of power should include a good bit of lofty rhetoric.
But it’s also a chance for a president to show the U.S. public – and the world – where he or she intends to take the country. Inaugural speeches, lofty as they are, mean something. Former President John F. Kennedy pledged in his inaugural address to “support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” That the United States found itself five years later with hundreds of thousands of troops in Vietnam was no coincidence.
Bush, whose 20-minute address invoked the word “freedom” more than 20 times, appeared to have set himself on a course that would have marked a radical departure from recent U.S. foreign policy. Taken seriously, the speech seemed to suggest a welcome sea change in our normally cozy relations with despotic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan.
Human-rights advocates have long warned that striking a Faustian bargain with those countries in the name of cheap oil or a war on terror is no way to promote democracy abroad.
Those relationships of convenience ultimately undermine U.S. credibility by giving our democratic rhetoric a hollow tone, and so does backing off an inaugural pledge just hours after delivering it.