President Bush believes that the events of Sept. 11, 2001, called our nation to a long struggle to spread liberty throughout the world -- seemingly without any limits of geography, resources or time.
The president's second inaugural address thus laid out the terms of the nation's essential debate for the next four years: Are Americans prepared to make this open-ended commitment? Will the administration offer a consistent and realistic strategy to achieve its broad ambition?
Every American will cheer the president's repeated references to the U.S. obligation to hold high the torch of freedom. "America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies," the president declared, and that is right. "We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery." That is right, too.
But Bush's description of the years before Sept. 11 was disturbing. He dismissed a decade marked by the triumph of freedom, the spread of prosperity and a modest but measurable increment of social justice as "years of relative quiet, years of repose, years of sabbatical." His next line: "And then there came a day of fire."
Repose? Sabbatical? Put aside the fact that in the years Bush dismisses, the United States stood up, slowly and reluctantly, to be sure, for freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo and Haiti. Are years of "relative quiet" somehow inferior to an era defined by war? Is the assumption here that Americans are better off when we are embattled and less noble when we are at peace? Is this a call for unending conflict and confrontation?
"Some, I know, have questioned the global appeal of liberty, though this time in history -- four decades defined by the swiftest advance of freedom ever seen -- is an odd time for doubt," Bush said. "Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals."
But the issue here is certainly not "the power of our ideals." Most of us believe in "the global appeal of liberty." What's in question is whether the president has been candid about the costs of his all-embracing vision, about how to pay for it and raise the troops to fight for it.
Iraq so far has been anything but a model of success. If the president had offered even a hint that he's made mistakes and bad judgments, his call for "the expansion of freedom in all the world" would have rung so much truer. If the real meaning of the president's words is that there are more Iraqs in our future, many Americans who share the president's love of freedom will say no. Stirring words, alas, cannot mask a flawed policy.
I loved what the president said about our obligations to dissidents around the world. "No one is fit to be a master and no one deserves to be a slave," Bush declared. "Democratic reformers facing repression, prison or exile can know: America sees you for who you are, the future leaders of your free country." Exactly right. And what, precisely, do those beautiful words mean for the president's policy toward China or Russia or Saudi Arabia? How consistently will we stand up for embattled democratic reformers? Always? Or only when convenient?
And then there is the profoundly uncomfortable question: Do we want Sept. 11 to dominate how we define ourselves indefinitely? The president seems to think so. It's not polite to say at a moment of pomp and ceremony, but defining our politics in terms of that horrific event served the president's interest and was a central reason why he was standing before us yesterday.
Many who supported the president in his bold response to the terrorists in Afghanistan cannot escape the suspicion that Sept. 11 will be used again and again as a political rallying cry to justify genuinely radical foreign policy departures that serve neither our nation nor the cause of freedom.
I pray that I am wrong, that the coming elections in Iraq will begin to "break the reign of hatred and resentment" and that the idealism of the president's words will translate into realistic policies. But I do not want our nation to be defined for decades by what happened on Sept. 11, 2001. I want a nation that loves liberty so much that it can move beyond tragedy and embrace not only the call to battle but also the promise of peace.