WASHINGTON – In his brief but eloquent inaugural address, President Bush dedicated the balance of his time in office to the same sweeping goals he set forth at the start of his first term – the worldwide realization of the ideals of freedom and democracy.
Four years ago, speaking from the same Capitol steps to a nation which had barely elected him and an international audience that barely knew him, he said, “Through much of the last century, America’s faith in freedom and democracy was a rock in a raging sea. Now it is a seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations.”
On this cold, clear Jan. 20, as a president tested by war and terrorism and renewed in power, Bush pledged to seek “the greatest achievements in the history of freedom,” the liberation of oppressed people everywhere and the end of all tyrannies.
If that seems a wildly ambitious agenda for a country whose citizens are increasingly discomfited by the unfinished effort to liberate one country – Iraq – it is.
But it reflects one essential truth we have learned about Bush: His faith that the quest for freedom is a universal truth, rooted in human nature and intended by God.
He reached out to Lincoln for his language and his metaphors, paraphrasing one of the Great Emancipator’s famous phrases and saying that “no one is fit to be a master and no one deserves to be a slave.”
But in the sweep of his ambitions to make the United States the driving force for democratization of the world, he resembles no president as much as the idealistic Woodrow Wilson.
In interviews this month with Bush’s White House associates, I found near-universal rejection of the notion that second terms are fated to bring disappointment. When I cited the historians’ litany of scandals and mishaps that befell Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton after their second oath-taking, Karl Rove and others rejected any claim of inevitability.
But it is Wilson – who saw his dream of permanent peace embodied in the League of Nations crushed brutally after he was re-elected in 1916 – who might embody the cautionary message for Bush.
Wilson’s hopes foundered on the ambitions and national interests of the European powers, and equally on the reluctance of Congress and the American people to make the sacrifices required to fulfill such an ambitious agenda.
Skeptics may say that the visionary international policy sketched by Bush is as ephemeral as his vow to “strive in good faith to heal” the political divisions in this country.
But that may be an error. The president has spoken passionately, in private as well as in public, of his belief that “history … has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.”
You have to know that in chancelleries around the world, the implications of his speech are being carefully weighed.
What was striking was that the international liberation cause Bush expounded at length subordinated not only his domestic agenda, but even the call to combat terrorism.
The terrorist attacks that reshaped his first term were cited but once – and immediately linked to their “deepest source,” the fact that “whole regions of the world simmer in resentment” because their people are living under undemocratic rulers.
In effect, Bush put authoritarian regimes throughout the world on notice that human rights and civil liberties will determine their relationship with America.
This suggests a radical redefinition of U.S. policy toward Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example. Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan and Vladimir Putin in Russia must recognize what that means. Even China, the emerging power in Asia, may be asked to show more respect for democracy and human rights. Without naming names, Bush said that America will place its bets on “democratic reformers” in such countries, because they “are the future leaders.”
In his first term, Bush used military force to liberate Afghanistan and Iraq only after he decided that their regimes harbored direct threats to the United States.
He said that the quest for freedom “is not primarily the task of arms,” but I think it would be a mistake not to believe him serious in saying it is a central purpose of his administration.
He has described himself memorably as “a plain-spoken fella,” and these words could not be plainer: “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.”
David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. Contact him by writing to email@example.com.