By now, four years into a presidency that has reshaped American politics and shaken the world, perhaps no one should be surprised by George W. Bush's ambition. Even so, the 21-minute address he delivered at the Capitol yesterday was startling in its reach.
His pledges to promote liberty and aid the oppressed, along with predictions of the United States leading the world to the ultimate triumph of democracy over tyranny in every land, were issued with some of the most expansive and lyrical language Bush has summoned. Several times he invoked God, and he regularly borrowed ideas, imagery and phrases from such looming predecessors as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
The immediate question, presidential scholars and foreign policy experts say, is the same in Washington as it is in other capitals around the world: What to make of such idealistic and uncompromising language from an incumbent president?
If taken at face value, Bush's words would imply nearly limitless obligations to confront all manner of autocrats around the planet, even in cases in which anti-democratic governments in the Middle East and elsewhere support U.S. interests. He made scant acknowledgment of the trade-offs he has regularly made, such as supporting repressive regimes in Asia as payback for their support in Afghanistan.
More plausibly, most of the president's supporters maintained, he was intending not so much to describe a road map for the next four years as to make a provocative statement about the nation's long-term mission over the next several decades -- the "concentrated work of generations," as Bush put it.
The implications of the speech were uncertain because the celebration of democratic values was harnessed to almost no specifics. Though dominated by foreign affairs, the address did not mention Iraq, Iran, North Korea -- or indeed any country, friend or foe, occupying his second-term agenda. Sept. 11, 2001, was mentioned once obliquely as a "day of fire," but the word "terrorism" did not appear, nor was there mention of the al Qaeda terrorists whose attack altered history and transformed Bush's presidency.
Rather than terrorism, Bush spoke of a much broader struggle against "tyranny." And with a single rhetorical stroke, he declared moot the long-standing tension between universal human rights and narrow national interests -- the balance of "idealism" versus "realism" -- that has been perceived by several generations of his White House predecessors.
"America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one," Bush declared.
John Lewis Gaddis, a Yale University historian who has written influential critiques of Bush's first-term policies abroad, predicted the address would echo for years. "It's very much in the tradition of great speeches of the past," he said, adding that the speech says: "This is where we want to be some distance from now. We understand we can't get there tomorrow. But it's important to have that destination described."
Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, President Bill Clinton's national security adviser in his second term and a leading strategist on the Democratic side, said Bush has set "the right lodestar" for U.S. policy in celebrating democracy, but cautioned that "he's set up a very high bar" for himself.
"What happens when he meets with Putin next month?" asked Berger, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government has ruthlessly crushed separatists in Chechnya and has sought to stifle internal dissent across a range of fronts. The Chinese government, Berger added, continues to repress political liberty but also has a critical role in helping the United States contain North Korea's nuclear ambitions. "The rubber's going to hit the road," he said.
Despite the speech's the lack of detailed references, many listeners heard clear implications for Bush's most pressing foreign policy problem: Iraq. There has been considerable speculation that Bush will try to extract U.S. forces from a dangerous and unstable mission in that country as quickly as possible after the Jan. 30 elections. But withdrawal while Iraq is mired in violence would be hard to square with yesterday's rhetoric, supporters of a continued U.S. commitment say.
"He is signaling basically victory or bust, I think -- no backing down," said Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "For anyone looking for hints of scuttle, they'll look in vain."
By this light, the speech was another in a long line of markers showing how far Bush and top foreign policy advisers such as Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice have migrated from the self-restrained, interests-driven approach to the world they advocated in the 2000 campaign.
In 2003, Bush announced that promoting democracy in the authoritarian governments of the Middle East was his long-term goal. He has increasingly described the mission in Iraq as liberating oppressed people, in part because the original main rationale -- stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction -- has been undermined by the failure to find such weapons.
The speech thrilled neoconservatives, who took it as evidence that Bush is not retreating, as some predicted he would, to a more conventional Republican brand of foreign policy with a lesser emphasis on values and robust intervention abroad.
"This was a historic speech," said William Kristol, a leading neoconservative voice and editor of the Weekly Standard. "The generality makes it more powerful, not less."
By Kristol's reckoning, this was Bush's first major address describing an ambitious foreign policy in terms that did not emphasize responding to the Sept. 11 attacks, but instead put the struggle in a broader context. The statement of values, and the challenge Bush is setting for himself, is of more consequence than the unavoidable instances in which these values give way to other foreign policy priorities, he argued.
"The real world is the real world, and inevitably there will be a thousand compromises," Kristol said. "Bush knows what he's doing, and the directness of these words give them real punch."
Alex Moens, a political scientist at Canada's Simon Fraser University, who has recently written a book on Bush's foreign policy, said people in his country and elsewhere in the world will read the speech and ask: "How many code words are in there? If you're talking about tyranny these days, you're talking about North Korea and Iran," both of which have nascent nuclear programs and represent near-term challenges for Bush, he said.
Steven Schier, a Carleton College political scientist who has edited academic volumes on the Clinton and Bush presidencies, said Bush's speech will take concrete meaning only when it is paired with the State of the Union address next month. "I don't think the speech was written in a way to be taken literally," he said. "If it was, you'd have to have more policy detail, but it's written at such a high level of abstraction it's hard to take issue with it. It's an attempt to link up with the great speeches and great concepts of the American past."
Indeed, the speech was replete with historical echoes. Forty-four years ago, President John F. Kennedy pledged to "pay any price, bear any burden" on behalf of liberty. But even that address sought peaceful competition with the Soviet Union, rather than a pledge to roll it back.
Bush cited Lincoln's admonition that "those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves." And, in an line that hinted at Lincoln's view that "the Almighty has His own purposes," Bush said he takes inspiration from God but recognizes that "God moves and chooses as he wills."