One of the defining traits of President George W. Bush is his willingness to pick a side, stick with it and make the case for why he believes as he does. That can be frustrating when one disagrees with the president, given his immobility once he embraces a viewpoint, but at least everyone knows where he wants to direct the government.
On Thursday, during his second inaugural speech, the president once again stated clearly his view on the world.
Such speeches are more high-falutin’ rhetoric than nuts-and-bolts policy prescriptions, but there is no mistaking two points:
First, the president will continue to keep foreign policy at the top of his priorities even as he pushes an aggressive domestic agenda.
Second, the president believes America should be a driving force for spreading freedom and democracy around the globe.
“For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny — prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder — violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power … and raise a mortal threat,” he said. “There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.”
No mention of the Iraq war, but a clear description of how the president sees our role there. He wants to remake the Middle East by removing a dictator and replacing him with a stable, democratic government. So far, he’s accomplished only the removal of the dictator Saddam Hussein, but the plan in itself, defensible at a certain philosophical level, is troubling as policy.
As the founders understood it, America should be a beacon of liberty to the world, but a defender only of its own.
“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,” Bush added. Those words describe a broad and continuing sort of crusade, leading critics of the Bush policy in Iraq to believe that he may be targeting other nations, such as Iran.
But the president did offer words of caution:
“This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen … And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling.”
That statement can be viewed as mainly a justification of the current post-war strategy in Iraq. The new democracy that emerges, the president is warning us, will be Iraqi in nature, and might not resemble our own government in many obvious ways.
But we have some concerns about the broad nature of the president’s global mission to promote democracy and freedom. Even if he does not use military force in the future, we wonder whether the president’s approach includes the troubling use of economic sanctions, for example. Sanctions punish the people, not the dictators, and they slow the movement to a free society because economic freedom always provides pressure for political openness.
Sanctions aside, however, it is wholly appropriate for the federal government, in its political relations with other countries, to lobby for political changes. It’s nice to know that political prisoners in other lands might have their cause championed by the U.S. administration.
The president gave some mention to his domestic priorities, including the creation of what he calls the “ownership society.” But there’s no doubt that his emphasis remains on the war on terror and spreading his ideas about freedom and democracy across the globe.
There are some things to like, others to fear, but there’s no doubting where the president stands on these matters.