As inaugural speeches go, it was technically well done. Reasonably brief, ringing phrases, patriotism, idealism, even a touch of humility. And well-delivered. The main ain't a rube, even if he and many of his enemies paint him in that role.
Sure, anyone with a few minutes and a blue pencil could edit one thing or another, but you can't say it wasn't eloquent, and you can't say it didn't reflect the man as he's evolved post 9/ll and post-Iraq.
Some whom you might not expect were critical:
- Peggy Noonan:
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.
There were moments of eloquence: "America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies." "We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery." And, to the young people of our country, "You have seen that life is fragile, and evil is real, and courage triumphs." They have, since 9/11, seen exactly that.
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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.
- Bill Buckley:
The age-old aphorism says that hard cases make bad law. The meaning of this is that complexities piled on top of complexities can cause the governing law to gaggle in confusion. There is -- let's demonstrate -- a law against murder. But how do you deal with the man who fired the bullet at the cuckolder in mid-stroke, egged on to do so by his daughter, who is suffering from a fatal illness? But even granted the difficulties in applying the Bush code everywhere, the American realist inevitably asked himself questions, upon hearing the soaring, Biblical rhetoric of the president. How to apply the presidential criteria?
Okay. Never mind the tyrannies in spotty little states in Africa. Those cases are so hard as to make very bad law. A foreign policy that insists on the hygiene of the Central African Republic may be asking too much.
But what about China? Is it U.S. policy to importune Chinese dissidents to start on this journey of progress and justice? How will we manifest our readiness to "walk at [their] side"?
China, so massive, is maybe too massive a challenge for our liberationist policy, even as the Central African Republic is too exiguous. Then what about Saudi Arabia? Here is a country embedded in oppression. Does President Bush really intend to make a point of this? Where? At the U.N.? At the Organization of African Unity? Will we refuse to buy Saudi oil?
The sentiments of President Bush are admirable, and his sincerity was evident. But in speaking about bringing liberty to the rest of the world, he could have gone at it more platonically: but this would have required him to corral his enthusiasm for liberty everywhere with appropriately moderate rhetoric.
Noonan and Buckley catch what is problematic in the speech. As a reflection of an ideal, no quarrel. The God-talk was true to Bush's beliefs, and that's fine.
The idealistic references to freedom were well-done and unexceptionable, if occasionally overblown or infelicitous.
The issue before the house, however, is how means and ends are to connect. At times we spread freedom by going to war, an uncomfortable idea to some, but a reality. But we cannot go to war against, or economically sanction, or even cut ties with every government that has tyrannical features, such as two that Buckley mentions, Saudi Arabia and China.
So how does the administration connect its aspirations to reality? A few come to mind:
- The military option, which both Clinton and Bush have employed in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. These operations will be difficult and rare. Rome learned the lessons of prudence and defensible borders; so should we.
- Example and exhortation. These are a theme of our history. How many "United States of this or that" are there in Latin America and elsewhere? Our imitators may not always make us proud, but our example has been powerful.
- Economic and moral assistance well short of military intervention. Such was the case of Ukraine. We would not have sent troops, but dribs and drabs of money, diplomatic dé:marches and the like played an important part in the Orange Revolution.
- Covert operations and real diplomatic and economic pressure.
There is a prudential question as to when and how we invoke these. Moreover, as Buckley points out, sometimes our other interests conflict with this idealism, whether oil as in Saudi Arabia, or trade and the risks of confronting an emerging great power as in China.
In short, on the international front, Bush's idealism will be tested against our resources, our courage, and our prudence.
I have never been an admirer of Woodrow Wilson. He should never have entered World War I, and in its aftermath he helped create a series of non-viable and soon-fascist states out of an interfering and impractical idealism.
So I'm troubled by the messianic strain in Bush's speech. If the policy is implemented with real prudence and due deference to our more mundane national interests, the speech, like Reagan's "evil empire" and "tear down this wall" speeches, will take its place as an expression of hopes and dreams. If recklessly implemented, without respect for the culture and wishes of others, it could punctuate an era of overextension and great difficulty. Those of us who live that long will see. If we don't, our children and grndchildren will see.
I must add a word about the very brief allusions to domestic policy. If we are to remain a great power, let along a "shining city on a hill," we must attend to our fiscal and other issues. Bush, God bless him, proposes to do more than any President since Roosevelt to change things. He, and we, will have to deal with those issues soon, but in another forum, starting with the State of the Union.
To summarize: a hopeful, upbeat, eloquent speech, treating lofty ideals. Time and the means taken to implement the policies will be the true test.