President George W. Bush’s inaugural address pleased and inspired me. Talk about a return to, and affirmation of, first and best principles! This exhilarating testament to freedom reminded me of why I became a member of the Republican party 20 years ago, the Democrats having then abandoned the fields of human rights and national security. And, it warmed my heart to see the long and hard-wrought toilings of old friends payoff in what sounded to me like a new theme in foreign policy: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.” And, “So 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.”
To be sure, much of this has the ring of the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan; but it also has the ring of former Democrats like Jeane Kirkpatrick as well.
But the speech obviously did not delight everyone, not even everyone in the Republican party. Since the address, many concerns, cautions, and qualifiers have been raised–unfortunately, most of them by people in the White House. One troubling after-event has been the attempted “calming” of those who took President Bush’s words literally. It has now been explained to us that this should not be done, that there are shadings and nuances of time and modality. For example, officials from the White House have said, “Bush did not say when all this would occur” and “the process for all this has no time frame.” Well, I am not budged; go to the text. President Bush stated, “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.” There is no vacillation here, or really any nuance. From these words there is no question about when we will act. It is emphatic and clear. The perfectly clear answer to the question, “When will the U.S. help?” is we will stand when you stand. Could not be more clear. The question of “how” is a different question and does remain unanswered.
By this President Bush’s words, it is clear that were this address our policy in 1989 we would have been with the Tiananmen marchers in China; in 1991 we would have been with the Shiites in Iraq. Sadly, there is a long and not-so-happy history of the U.S. standing by while freedom movements arose only to be crushed. But President Bush’s words know no such shifting. They do mean something to the “future leaders” he addressed–just as we know that the words of President Ronald Reagan meant something to Natan Sharansky, who tapped Reagan’s words out to fellow prisoners in the former USSR when he was in prison for being a dissident there. Sharansky, as it happens, is also the author of The Case for Democracy, the book President Bush continues to recommend to those interested in the roots of his foreign-policy thinking.
How will all of these statements and sentiments relate to our foreign and economic policies toward places like China, whose human-rights record is as bad as Cuba’s, if not worse? Or Saudi Arabia? The whole world is watching. And, perhaps it will all be spelled out in policy over the next year, or more immediately in the State of the Union.
When it comes to the tyrants who rule the oppressed, I hope David Brooks is correct when he writes, “the bias in American foreign policy will shift away from stability and toward reform.” And, if our foreign policy is shifting from stability to reform, it appears that our war policy is shifting from terrorism to tyranny. But just what our priority for action is, terrorism or tyranny, is a question that remains to be answered.
On a different point, I agree with David Gelernter who has written that a terrorist is a tyrant out of power. That is fair enough. But I think we should have heard something about the war on terrorism in the inaugural address; that is what we have been fighting–actually fighting–for the past three years. Terrorism and terrorist sponsoring states were the focus of the original Bush Doctrine. Is the Axis of Evil still relevant? How does being committed to freedom and opposed to tyranny translate into action against terrorist tyrannies rather than just tyrannies that are bad in themselves but self contained, and not sponsors of terrorism? Why we fight is, after all, at least as important as where we fight.
As I write this, the administration has now sent word that, as the Washington Post put it, “President Bush’s soaring inaugural address, in which he declared the goal of ending tyranny around the world, represents no significant shift in U.S. foreign policy but instead was meant as a crystallization and clarification of policies he is pursuing in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and elsewhere.” “It is not a discontinuity. It is not a right turn,” said one unnamed top official.
This quick watering down, this attenuation, raises the ultimate issue: Words matter; they can be incitements said Justice Holmes–and presidential words matter even more; they can be international incitements. We have, in Bush’s inaugural, a statement and philosophy that will live for the ages. The question is not whether these words will live through the ages however, but, rather, whether these words will have life next month, next year, and through the time the next freedom movement arises. In the end, it is not the words that are in question, but, rather, our fidelity to them.
–William J. Bennett is the host of the nationally syndicated radio show, Bill Bennett’s Morning in America, and the Washington Fellow at the Claremont Institute.