Bush the Elder was roundly and rightly criticized for a lack of vision at one of the most dramatic moments in contemporary history, and he himself, with a certain aristocratic indifference, agreed that he wasn’t very big on the “vision thing.” Now comes Bush the Younger, paradoxically under fire for an excess of vision and a lack of realism.
The widespread, sometimes almost feverish, deconstruction of his second inaugural address, springs from several impulses, some entirely legitimate and even admirable, and others rooted in baser concerns of personal status and political power. Having lost its ability to understand the course of world events, the Left denounces it as an exercise in neoconservative hysteria if not unrestrained imperialism. But if the president had instead spoke of the need for calm, measured steps and patience about the slow advance of freedom, they’d have accused him of abandoning principle to cover up his strategic failure. Some conservatives, as always dreading foreign entanglements and fearing contamination from mass movements, bemoan the speech’s idealism and faith, and warn that the president is raising expectations that cannot possibly be met. Still others lament its lack of proper “context,” and wish that the president had been more focused on our “real” situation, namely the war on terror and the battle for Iraq.
I think that the president had it right. He put our real situation in its real context, which is the fight for freedom against the tyrants who are waging the terror war against us. We are engaged in a war against the terror masters, not just a battle for the security of the Iraqi people. He not only recognizes the true common denominator of our enemies–tyranny, rather than “fundamentalist Islam”–and he recognizes that military power will sometimes be necessary, but our most devastating weapons are political.
Those who argue that we should narrow our attention on Iraq and resist the temptation of a global crusade have the context wrong. The attacks launched on the United States and the West itself (even if many intended victims refuse to see the war plain), starting 25 years ago in Tehran and continuing uninterruptedly through 9/11 September 11 and onto Iraq, Madrid, Bali, and Jakarta, is the continuation of a very old war, our national war, the war that was described and defined by Alexis de Tocqueville nearly a century and a half ago when he forecast a great struggle between Russia and the United States. He realized that there was no escape from this global conflict because each incarnated one of the basic political visions of mankind: The Russians stood for tyranny, while the Americans represented democracy. In like manner, the terror masters attack us today because they are the latest incarnation of tyranny, and thus they must attempt to destroy us.
That’s the context, and the president did a fine job of presenting it. He knows that there is no sense of urgency among the American body politic–except the urgency of his enemies, who wish to cause an American retreat from Iraq and the downfall of the Bush presidency–and thus he feels he must restate both the nature of our times and the content of our mission. That’s entirely appropriate for an inaugural address, and I hope he elaborates on it in the State of the Union.
The great failure of this president and of his aides is not lack of vision, but lack of will to wage the war on the required scale with the full panoply of weapons of political destruction. There will be no peace and quiet in Iraq so long as the terror masters rule in Syria and Iran, and so long as the Saudi royal family continues to fund terrorist groups and jihadist tracts around the world. American men and women are dying in Iraq because of the flirting with Iran and Syria and the odd affection for the Wahabbists in Saudi Arabia. Thank heavens there are stronger wills and clearer minds in Congress, where bills calling for regime change are now in process. Once those bills have become laws, it will be difficult for this administration to refuse to apply the president’s eloquent words to the tyrants in Damascus and Tehran, and do whatever he can to bring them down, such as helping to fund the various radio and television stations broadcasting to Iran and Syria. And it would be good to hear the Cabinet secretaries speak repeatedly about the grim repression and runaway violations of human rights.
If this does not happen, if we are in fact going to just fight the battle of Iraq and then come home, then there would be a truly legitimate criticism of the inaugural address: that the president had raised passions and expectations without any intention of following through in the real world. And so we close with the usual prayer: Faster, please.
–Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. He is resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.