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Themes that stir supporters, critics

WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush's soaring second inaugural address was an expansion and amplification of the themes in his post-Sept. 11 address to Congress, linking the fight against terrorism to the nation's manifest destiny to promote freedom around the world.

The address harked back to earlier calls for a strong US presence in the world from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was forceful enough to blow away any shards of the isolationist wing of the Republican Party, to which Bush himself expressed fealty just four years ago.

Combined with the president's delivery, which was even more clipped and serious than usual, and the protesters heard in the background, the speech seemed likely to reinforce impressions of the president as forceful and resolute in the eyes of his supporters, but stubborn and repetitive in the eyes of detractors.

"We have seen our vulnerability, and we have seen its deepest source," Bush said. "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 force, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat."

This was the fullest enunciation yet of the view Bush first expressed more than three years ago, on Sept. 20, 2001, when he said terrorists "hate what they see right here in this chamber -- a democratically elected government," and called terrorists "heirs to all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century."

Bush's return to those themes seemed likely to trigger similar reactions. By linking the fight against terrorism to some of the deepest veins of American history -- to the "Spirit of '76" that spawned the American Revolution itself -- Bush rallied the nation. But as a blueprint for the war on terrorism, yesterday's speech, like its predecessor, seemed destined to provoke some critical questions.

By stating that dictatorship breeds terrorism, Bush is reinforcing his strategy of attacking dictators rather than the groups that plan terrorism. Many antiterrorism specialists believe that as a way to attack terrorism, regime change is ineffective: The most threatening terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda operate outside national boundaries and can only be fought with intensive international cooperation.

By implicitly expressing a desire to transform all governments that are not democracies, Bush runs a risk of either alienating allies in the war on terrorism or being accused of a double standard when he extends favorable treatment to nondemocratic allies such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.

"We will persistently clarify the choice between every ruler and every nation: the moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right," Bush declared.

If Bush's philosophy traces to Sept. 11, his tone of insistency seems a vestige of the dispute over the Iraq war, even though it was not mentioned. Proven wrong in his assertion that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction, he seems driven to reinforce the invasion on other grounds -- principally that Saddam Hussein was a murderous dictator.

The disputes surrounding the Iraq war were in clear focus during Bush's first term, and echoes of his clashes with reluctant allies before the war, and with domestic critics afterward, were evident in this speech: the notion that all dictators jeopardize world peace, that aggressive action deters future enemies, and especially that principle and resolve should override practical and realistic concerns.

In the weeks after Sept. 11, Bush leavened his rhetoric about freedom with warnings about difficulties to come and gestures of sensitivity, such as reassuring Muslims that the United States respects and honors their religion. There were few, if any, demonstrations of reassurance yesterday. It was the speech of a man who knew his course and, even more than in his first term, seemed uninterested in accommodating any other views.

In 2001, Bush delayed going to war in Afghanistan until the United States could coordinate with Northern Alliance troops on an indigenous battle plan to oust the Taliban and replace its leaders; Bush, under the guidance of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, expressed a fear that unilateral US action could provoke a backlash among Muslims, particularly in border areas with Pakistan.

In 2003, Bush proceeded into Iraq despite warnings that a disproportionately US force would prompt a backlash; the insurgency followed, and Bush now seems certain that practical and logistical hesitations must never deter quick action.

"All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors," Bush said. "When you stand for liberty, we stand with you."

Ultimately, Bush's inaugural address will be either validated or subsumed by the events that follow. And with US troops still fully occupied in Iraq, there is no new fight immediately on the horizon. The nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea remain a pressing concern, and Bush's address can be read as a message to democratic reformers in those countries.

Domestic issues, which are expected to be a prime focus of the next few months, got relatively short shrift in the speech, but the president's legislative agenda will be outlined in his State of the Union address next month.

At its end, the address was an expression of will aimed at posterity. It was also a veiled, but fierce, defense of an invasion that has alienated much of the world and provoked criticism at home.

"America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout the world, and to all inhabitants thereof," Bush declared. "Renewed in our strength -- tested, but not weary -- we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom."

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