Nine days ago, U.S. President George W. Bush delivered his second inaugural speech, a rousing, 21-minute address in which, among other things, he extolled liberty and proclaimed “ending tyranny in our world” the ultimate goal of U.S. policy. God himself backed this policy, Mr. Bush said. Wasn’t it in full accord with history’s “visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty,” i.e., God — that very special friend of America’s? Every day since, the White House has been busy running damage control. What went askew?
Traditionally, a presidential inaugural speech is received fairly languidly in the United States. In line with that, Mr. Bush’s speech would ordinarily have been taken one of two ways. Some would have seen it as a nice example of the speechwriter’s craft — easy to listen to, elegantly phrased, competently delivered, even offering one or two truly stirring moments. “When the Declaration of Independence was first read in public and the Liberty Bell was sounded in celebration, a witness said, ‘It rang as if it meant something,’ ” Mr. Bush declared. “In our time it means something still.” Inspiring lines, indeed, but nothing that needed to be parsed too closely.
Others would perhaps have seen it as just another serving of American political exceptionalism, an updated version of the picture of the U.S. that has been painted repeatedly by Republicans and Democrats alike: God’s own country, light of the world, shining city on a hill and so on. (Wasn’t it the Democrats’ rising star, then-Sen.-elect Barack Obama, who at last year’s party convention in Boston praised the U.S. as “a magical place, a beacon of freedom and opportunity”?)
That kind of rhetoric is certainly what foreign observers have come to expect from American politicians. They have been jarred by such language so often they barely twitch now when they hear it. Most were probably less surprised by Mr. Bush’s second inaugural speech itself than they were to find large numbers of Americans suddenly wondering how it must have sounded, and what it might mean, to the rest of the world.
Because an odd thing happened. Americans didn’t receive the speech with their accustomed languor. They replayed the tape, pored over the transcript, dissected the imagery, counted the number of times the words “freedom” or “liberty” were used (42) and for some reason — the Iraq misadventure suggests itself — decided to take the speech’s well-worn, God-driven rhetoric seriously. A Los Angeles Times commentary Jan. 21 summarized the common reaction well: “We take this president at his word. And the words are startling.”
A barrage of questions followed — and has not ended yet — about the speech’s real-life implications for U.S. foreign policy. The White House has been asked so often whether it signaled some major policy shifts (what, for instance, did Mr. Bush mean when he said relations with “every ruler and every nation” would henceforward depend on how they treated their own people?) that it has been busy ever since issuing denials, corrections and clarifications. The day after the speech, reporters were summoned to the White House to be told that the speech did not signify a change in policy.
The day after that, the president’s father, George H.W. Bush, intervened to say that his son’s words did not mean “new aggression or newly asserted military forces.” And in a news conference Wednesday, the president himself reiterated that, while the speech “set a bold new goal for the future,” it still reflected “the policy of the past.” Pakistan, China, Libya, Syria, Russia and other not-too-democratic allies needn’t worry, in other words. The speech did not apply to them.
Not surprisingly, there have been many jokes at the president’s expense over these retractions and fine-tunings. Several commentators have been reminded of the “Saturday Night Live” skit in which a character would end every appearance with the line, “Oh, never mind.”
One said it was rather as if Winston Churchill had issued a clarification after his Iron Curtain speech: “OK, I meant more like pewter.” But, of course, it is not a joking matter. Iraq’s distress made such humor inappropriate long ago.
In some ways, people in other countries can take comfort from Americans’ discomfiture with this speech. Yes, they want to say, the speech was startling — no doubt because Mr. Bush, more than any U.S. president in recent memory, has already shown that he takes America’s time-honored political rhetoric literally and intends, over time, to act on every strand of it. But the truth is, it said nothing that was really new. Mr. Bush is right: Nothing has changed. His is the “the policy of the past” made flesh. That is precisely what so many around the world find so scary.
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