White House officials said yesterday that President Bush's soaring inaugural address, in which he declared the goal of ending tyranny around the world, represents no significant shift in U.S. foreign policy but instead was meant as a crystallization and clarification of policies he is pursuing in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and elsewhere.
Nor, they say, will it lead to any quick shift in strategy for dealing with countries such as Russia, China, Egypt and Pakistan, allies in the fight against terrorism whose records on human rights and democracy fall well short of the values Bush said would become the basis of relations with all countries.
Bush advisers said the speech was the rhetorical institutionalization of the Bush doctrine and reflected the president's deepest convictions about the purposes behind his foreign policies. But they said it was carefully written not to tie him to an inflexible or unrealistic application of his goal of ending tyranny.
"It has its own policy implications, but it is not to say we're not doing this already," said White House counselor Daniel J. Bartlett. "It is important to crystallize the debate to say this is what it is all about, to say what are our ideals, what are the values we cherish."
"It is not a discontinuity. It is not a right turn," said a senior administration official, who spoke with reporters from newspapers but demanded anonymity because he wanted the focus to remain on the president's words and not his. "I think it is a bit of an acceleration, a raising of the priority, making explicit in a very public way to give impetus to this effort." He added that it was a "message we have been sending" for some time.
The speech Bush delivered Thursday at the Capitol appeared to set the United States on a new course in foreign policy, a pivot from the focus on terrorism, which has defined Bush's presidency since Sept. 11, 2001, to confronting tyranny as the enemy that threatens global security. In the 21-minute speech, Bush mentioned neither Iraq nor terrorism but defined what he called a generations-long struggle to encourage democracy to make America safe from terrorist attack.
"We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: the moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right," Bush said in his speech. At another point, he said, "We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people."
Bush's grand ambitions excited his neoconservative supporters, who see his call to put the United States in the forefront of the battle to spread democracy as noble and necessary. "It was a rare inaugural speech that will go down as a historic speech, I believe," said William Kristol, editor and publisher of the Weekly Standard and a leading neoconservative thinker. He predicted the speech will drive policy for the rest of Bush's presidency.
But it has alarmed some critics, who say it suggests a major and potentially mistaken expansion of U.S. foreign policy goals or merely empty rhetoric. They have asked whether the speech's soaring language has any practical application as the president goes about the gritty work of day-to-day diplomacy, and, if it does not, what meaning does it have? Even some conservatives questioned the gap between ambition and practicality.
"Ending tyranny in the world? Well that's an ambition, and if you're going to have an ambition it might as well be a big one," former White House speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who wrote Bush's father's 1989 inaugural address, said in a Wall Street Journal column yesterday. "But this declaration, which is not wrong by any means, seemed to me to land somewhere between dreamy and disturbing. Tyranny is a very bad thing and quite wicked, but one doesn't expect we're going to eradicate it any time soon. Again, this is not heaven, it's earth."
White House officials argued that some observers have read more into the speech than is there. "The speech was carefully and purposely nuanced," said presidential speechwriter and policy adviser Michael J. Gerson. "We are dealing with a generational struggle. It's not the work of a year or two."
Presidential advisers also said they were not trying to roll back the speech on the day after, pointing to language in the address that they said made it clear that the goal of ending tyranny would not be accomplished with cookie-cutter policies or unrealistic ambitions. For example, Bush declared that ending tyranny would not be accomplished primarily through armed conflict, and he made distinctions between dealing with outlaw states that actively support terrorism and those whose human rights records may be poor but that have shown a willingness to change.
The senior administration official pointed to Russia and China as countries that have a "successful relationship" with the United States. But he said Russia and China would need to embrace "a common set of values and principles" to have "a relationship that broadens and deepens."
He said that if Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to take steps to restrict democracy, it will "have a consequence on our relations," adding that "it will depend on some sense whether he has heard the message and acted on it, or doesn't." But he also said that administration concerns might not be voiced publicly, but through private channels.
The official stressed that he was not pulling back from the speech, which he repeatedly called "bold," but he also focused on what he called positive trends in close U.S. allies generally regarded as repressive. He said that Saudi Arabia is taking steps toward municipal elections and is having a "national dialogue" on reform, while Egypt last year held a conference that resulted in a declaration on political reform. "It's a step," he said.
He also said Pakistan, where President Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 bloodless coup, "has made some steps," including discussions on opening the political process and holding elections in 2007. He said Pakistan is under pressure from terrorists, and "if those kinds of al Qaeda and Taliban types gain control in Pakistan, the result will not be a more free Pakistan but a less free Pakistan."
Bartlett also differentiated between the inaugural speech and the president's State of the Union address, scheduled for Feb. 2, noting that the next speech will offer a more practical policy blueprint. The inaugural address, he said, was "a speech that required us to cast out into the future a beacon that we will strive to meet."
"It is a goal that is critically important, one that doesn't come to fruition overnight," Bartlett continued. "It will move at different speeds and different paces in different countries. But he felt it was important to cast an anchor out into the future" to show the goal of his policies.
Bush's speech appeared to put the United States on a course in which moralism and idealism, rather than realpolitik, form the philosophical foundations of foreign policy. But White House officials said that is a misreading of how Bush operates. "His goals are deeply idealistic," Gerson said. "His methods are deeply realistic. In fact, that was one of the themes of the speech, that this traditional divide between realism and idealism is no longer adequate for the conduct of American foreign policy."
The planning of Bush's second inaugural address began a few days after the Nov. 2 election with the president telling advisers he wanted a speech about "freedom" and "liberty." That led to the broadly ambitious speech that has ignited a vigorous debate. The process included consultation with a number of outside experts, Kristol among them.
One meeting, arranged by Peter Wehner, director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, included military historian Victor Davis Hanson, columnist Charles Krauthammer and Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis, according to one Republican close to the White House. White House senior adviser Karl Rove attended, according to one source, but mostly listened to what became a lively exchange over U.S. policy and the fight for liberty.
Gaddis caught the attention of White House officials with an article in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs magazine that seems to belie the popular perception that this White House does not consult its critics.
Gaddis's article is, at times, strongly critical of Bush's first-term foreign policy calculations, especially what he calls the twin failures to anticipate international resistance to Bush's ideas and Iraqi resistance to peace after the fall of Baghdad. But the article also raises the possibility that Bush's grand vision of spreading democracy could prove successful, and perhaps historic, if the right choices are made in the years ahead.
The former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky also helped shape the speech with his book about the hopes of democratic dissidents jailed by despots around the world. Bush recommended the book, "The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror," to several aides and invited Sharansky, now an Israeli politician, to the White House in mid-November to discuss it, according to one official.
Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.