George W. Bush came to office as a man of certainty, a leader of declared convictions ready to vanquish the moral ambiguities and tactical deceptions of the Clinton White House.
But an unexpected, fundamental question hangs over President Bush in his troubled fifth year in power: To what end? What can he realistically accomplish now by wielding the greatest store of wealth, military power and technological expertise any leader has ever commanded?
Many of the causes for which he campaigned in 2000 have fallen by the wayside as Bush and the nation have adjusted to the surprise shocks of Sept. 11, 2001, the course of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rise of China and India as major economic powers, and the destruction of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Bush will not leave behind a smaller government -- on the contrary, he will have presided over government's greatest sustained expansion since World War II. His legacy will not be a nation that is imbued with conservative fiscal discipline or is on a sounder economic footing. Nor, it now appears, will he have shifted the Supreme Court solidly into the camp of the anti-abortion forces with which he identifies politically.
As a practicing politician, Bush is hardly alone in experiencing the kinetic contradiction of declarations by deeds or omissions. But his still-assertive manner underscores a justified concern that Bush too often uses words in place of action. Is it enough for him to say that his job is to decide, to say he has decided and then to step aside so that all that follows is mere detail for others to work out?
The gap between Bush's declared goals and the means he chooses to accomplish them surfaced last week both in his nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court and the ringing, well-argued rhetoric he deployed in a conceptually sound speech on Iraq and the global war on terrorism.
If a well-crafted speech about Iraq or a bristling, uncompromising defense of a murky judicial nomination could resolve those thorny problems, Bush could cross them off his list. But they can't. So he can't.
It is clear enough that personal loyalty -- not the issue of abortion or the much-cited but unlikely desire to avoid a confirmation fight with the Democrats -- dictated the choice of Miers, the president's little-known White House lawyer, who seems to be a person of considerable character. Bush's move resembles nothing so much as John F. Kennedy's choice of his brother Robert to be attorney general.
It can be argued that the Miers nomination is also part of Bush's continuing, concerted effort to flatten the policymaking landscape of Washington -- to exercise control over the significant agencies of the federal government by populating them with loyalists from his White House. But that raises the unsettled, and unsettling, question: To what end? What does Bush believe he can accomplish through such control -- other than avoiding the disastrous divisions of his first administration?
The president's speech on Iraq had the virtue of spelling out clearly for the public the results of a months-long, behind-closed-doors struggle over policy described here in previous columns. At Bush's urging, his advisers have been crafting a National Security Presiden- tial Directive on combating violent Islamic extremism.
Bush seems to have overcome his reluctance to discuss religious extremism as a principal source of what he now describes as "a violent political vision" that would lead to "a totalitarian empire."
But means and ends frequently did not meet up in the speech: The president praised Pakistan for helping break up the A.Q. Khan nuclear-smuggling network. But he steered clear of deploring the fact that the Pakistani scientist has faced no significant legal punishment for offenses that, by Bush's description, amount to crimes against humanity. Nor did Bush give any indication of new willingness to pressure Pakistan to provide decisive help in capturing Osama bin Laden or wanted Taliban leaders.
The president called for "democratic federalism" in Iraq -- even as his White House staff and intelligence agency maneuver to bring to power Ayad Allawi, who has told visiting American politicians, diplomats and others that decentralized federalism will not work in Iraq.
These are admittedly mere details in the noble vision of "answering history's call" that Bush outlined with authority. But the details point to the enduring problem of reconciling words and deeds as the principal way of reconciling U.S. goals and capabilities abroad. For Bush, the week of words was not an end of his most urgent tasks. It was a beginning.