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E.J. Dionne Jr.

. . . Oh, Never Mind

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, January 25, 2005; Page A15

Perhaps I owe readers an apology. While I was critical of President Bush's inaugural address in some respects, it appears that I took its promise of an expansive campaign on behalf of democracy too seriously.

Barely 24 hours after the last marching band paraded past the White House, the president's lieutenants were out there spinning that all those lovely words didn't mean quite as much as they seemed to have meant.

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Visions in Need of a Little Realism (The Washington Post, Jan 21, 2005)
What Bush Could Say (The Washington Post, Jan 18, 2005)
The New Liberalism (The Washington Post, Jan 14, 2005)
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On the front page of The Post, Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei cited White House officials as saying on Friday that Bush's speech was "carefully written not to tie him to any inflexible or unrealistic application of his goal of ending tyranny."

The president's "soaring inaugural address," they wrote, would not lead "to any quick shift in strategy" for dealing with allies such as Russia, China, Egypt and Pakistan, nations "whose records on human rights fall well short of the values Bush said would become the basis of relations with all countries." Oh yes, and the same advisers said they "were not trying to roll back the speech on the day after."

In the New York Times, Steven R. Weisman and David E. Sanger noted dryly that an administration official "used the word 'bold' several times to describe" the speech. Yet the same administration official, they wrote, suggested that the address "did not imply that the United States would impose its views on other countries or overlook their particular social and political problems."

Could it be that the speech was designed to sound great but not commit the president to much of anything? "People want to read a lot into it -- that this means new aggression or newly asserted military forces," former president George H.W. Bush told reporters on Saturday. "That's not what that speech is about. It's about freedom." Well, yes, but it also seemed to be about asserting freedom more aggressively. Is that part now inoperative?

Washington tea-leaf readers may see the "realist" 41st president as reining in the "idealist" 43rd president. I doubt it. Members of the Bush family are, to their credit, fiercely loyal to each other. It was odd, though, that former president Bush referred to "new aggression." Did that word "aggression" unintentionally signal the father's worries about his son's foreign policy so far?

The younger Bush's Freedom Shuffle -- he's an idealist on Thursday and a realist on Friday -- may come as a relief to the many foreign policy specialists allergic to grand visions. A majority of Americans will be pleased with the elder Bush's reassurance that the speech does not mean "newly asserted military forces."

But the Freedom Shuffle is a terrible mistake for Bush, because the greatest barrier to Bush's success in his second term is the intense cynicism he has inspired about his motives. This cynicism affects the near majority that voted against him at home but also a vast number of citizens in nations around the world that were once American allies. It is a cynicism that, if it spreads further through the Muslim world, could doom the very best aspirations of Bush's policy.

Bush supporters see this cynicism as mean-spirited. In fact, it is the bitter fruit of bitter experience. A war originally justified in the name of ridding the world of weapons of mass destruction is transformed with some well-chosen phrases into -- presto! -- an episode in the long struggle for freedom. The shifting rationale is never acknowledged. His disquisition on this struggle did not even mention the central theater of battle in Iraq. No need to mire grand dreams in grim realities. A nation that should be the world's leading advocate of human rights gets caught up in a torture scandal, and the president has yet to hold himself or high officials accountable for this deep stain on his country's reputation.

And now we learn that we should not read too much into the president's enchanting freedom talk. He just wants to look "bold."

For his own sake and ours, Bush and his advisers should not be making it easier for adversaries and skeptical allies to dismiss freedom as an advertising slogan used to justify whatever foreign policy the administration decides to pursue. All presidents need a dose of realism, but surely this president doesn't want it said that his willingness to stand up for freedom depends on what the definition of "freedom" is.

You can spin a lot of things. Freedom shouldn't be one of them.


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