Inaugural Rhetoric & Reality
Jude Wanniski
January 21, 2005


Memo To: Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Analyzing the President's address

Simply put, President Bush's second inaugural address is being praised by his admirers for its idealistic rhetoric and dismissed by his critics as unrealistic, empty bombast. I find myself agreeing with both, but especially liked the analysis of Todd Purdum of the NYTimes, in his front page "Focus on Ideals, Not the Details." Purdum implied that because the original reasons for warring on Iraq have not held up, the Inaugural address gave Mr. Bush the chance to "hit the reset button" and explain he has all along had an idealistic vision of spreading freedom and liberty as his chief motivation.

As usual, I tuned in on the PBS Lehrer News Hour to see who was invited to do the slicing and dicing and was pleased to see Walter Russell Mead representing rhetoric and Zbigniew Brzezinski handling the reality. For what it's worth, I gave the decision to Zbig on points. Patricia, my wife, was more definite: "Brzezinski mopped the floor with him." Decide for yourself.

* * * * *

MARGARET WARNER: We explore the promise and the risk of the president's vow to spread freedom around the world, with two of our favorite analysts who've written widely on American foreign policy: Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser to President Carter, is now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

And Walter Russell Mead is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome to you both on this big night.

Walter, what did you make of the president's central message here, which is that for our own security we have to aggressively advance freedom around the world?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I thought it was a brilliantly stated summation of a theme in the history of American foreign policy, that is that throughout the 20th century, American foreign policy has been getting the idea that things abroad matter more to us and the old isolationism that people had maybe in earlier parts of our history, that we could ignore what was happening overseas, is no longer possible, we can't do it.

And furthermore, as we go forward with globalization, the rise of technology, all of these kinds of things, smaller and smaller events overseas affect us more and more deeply. And the president at this point is saying, American liberty isn't secure unless liberty is secure everywhere. It's sort of a breathtaking summary, extremely audacious; its implications are overwhelming. It suggests a really major restructuring of the American role in the world.

MARGARET WARNER: Did you see it that way, a fairly major restructuring, and do you agree with his premise?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: If the speech, if the speech was to be taken literally, then clearly it would imply commitment to some sort of a global crusade vis--vis a variety of states with many of whom we have all sorts of mutual concerns, even if we don't like their practical policies. I mean, take a few examples. Take China; we have a major state instability with China, but China is hardly a democracy. What about the Tibetans? Take Russia; we have a common stake with regards to terrorism, but what about the Chechens? They're being treated in a tyrannical fashion. Take an even more complex issue: what about Israel, which is a friend of ours, and its security against Palestinian terrorists? But what about the oppression of the Palestinians and their desire for freedom?

The fact is that the speech was high-sounding. If it was to be taken literally, it would mean an American crusade throughout the entire world, and I don't know how that would be implemented practically. More Iraqs, perhaps, or is it just a general statement which doesn't give us much guide to policy, suited for the occasion but not to be taken as the point of departure for serious policy?

WARNER: Did you see it as a blueprint, as a guide to what -- that this presidency in its second term is going to be very assertive internationally, including advancing democracy in areas in which there are risks, as Mr. Brzezinski just pointed out?

MEAD: Look, I think there will always be this tension, and I would add Egypt and Pakistan as two countries where American interests are entwined very delicately with regimes that are not particularly democratic.

WARNER: Let me ask you, just follow up on that -- should the United States be pushing, for instance, the regimes in Egypt, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia to open up more?

MEAD: I think all things being equal, you always want to try to do that, but there are always going to be constraints and other considerations, and things are related. For example, if you were seeing more progress toward a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, it would probably be possible for the U.S. Government to be a little bit more pressing in its urge for democracy in some of the Arab countries.

So it's going to be -- you're going to see an administration which may always want to act in certain ways, sometimes not be able to, but I would say that it would be a real mistake to underestimate the degree to which what you heard was what the president really deeply believes. It seems to me this is his world view, and I would also say that possibly in this administration the idea of more Iraqs is not as frightening a thought as it might be for some -- for many of us maybe outside the administration.

And I would say some of the things we heard from the vice president recently about Iran make me think that this administration may press rather hard.

WARNER: Well, let's go to that, as to whether this was a threat to further military action. Let me read you this -- I'm looking for it now -- but basically his message to the oppressors was - ah, here: Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves. How did you read that?

BRZEZINSKI: I read it as rhetoric because as a practical matter how is he going to apply it vis--vis China or Russia? We can apply it towards defenseless or weak states, but that's hardly a statement of policy of a global significant character.

WARNER: All right. What about Iran?

BRZEZINSKI: Iran I think is more ambiguous. And there the issue is certainly not tyranny; it's nuclear weapons. And the vice president today in a kind of a strange parallel statement to this declaration of freedom hinted that the Israelis may do it and in fact used language which sounds like a justification or even an encouragement for the Israelis to do it. And I happen to think that this would be very destabilizing in the region. We would be viewed as complicit. It would intensify the problems that we are already facing in manifold fashion.

It just makes me feel that the administration at this stage is really very unclear regarding its genuine strategic doctrine. It has high-sounding rhetoric, but it doesn't have a real sense of priorities or directions. If the rhetoric was to be taken seriously, we would be overstretched globally to a devastating degree.

WARNER: Do you agree with Walter, though, that this sounds to him like really the president's deep-seated beliefs?

BRZEZINSKI: Well, maybe, but you know deep-seated beliefs are one thing; capabilities is the other. And what capabilities do we have actually at hand to pursue this global crusade?

WARNER: Speaking of which, he never mentioned the word "Iraq," the place where we are currently engaged in a very costly experiment to instill or install democracy. One, were you surprised he didn't mention Iraq, and what did you make of that?

MEAD: Again, I thought it showed this is an administration that feels, I think as the president mentioned, has had its accountability moment. It went to the people. It received a majority this time. And so the feeling is their instincts have been confirmed. They do not believe that the Iraq War is a failure. They do not believe that we are facing another Vietnam there. They believe we're winning. And they are ready to do more of this if they think they need to.

WARNER: So you don't think they're glossing over or that this speech tended to ignore that risk also, the risk of instability that comes with suddenly bringing freedom, quote/unquote, to a formerly oppressive situation?

MEAD: Again, the vice president today, in what seems to be a little bit of a commentary on this speech, did, ask, you know, were there mistakes, have you learned something? He did say, well, we underestimated what it would take to get Iraq back on its feet.

WARNER: We're all talking about this MSNBC interview he did, by the way.

MEAD: Exactly. And this, I think, you know, I think there is an awareness in the administration this is tough, What the president is doing, I think, is he knows that the course that he would like to set the country on of this, let's not use the word "crusade," that might have some unfortunate repercussions for some people, but say global struggle for liberty, as being the strategic core for American foreign policy in the next generation or two generations, is going to require a lot of resources. It will require at various times probably military action of some kind, and he's trying in this speech to build a public consensus that this is the right way, even I think he would say the only way for the country to go.

WARNER: How do you think Zbig, this will be read overseas? I mean, there were definitely some - I don't know if you'd call them olive branches extended to the allies. He said, we value your friendship, we value your counsel. Another time he said, we don't seek to impose our form of government. How do you think it will be read?

BRZEZINSKI: If the speech is taken seriously, I think people will be concerned, because they'll wonder whether this is a statement of a crusade. But if it isn't taken seriously, if it's viewed as a ceremony, then it will be dismissed as a nice statement which perhaps reflects the president's views but which is really not a program of action. And I don't think we should assess this speech as a program of action. It may be a testimonial of his deepest beliefs, but it really doesn't tell us anything about his strategy. It repackages his attitude, instead of talking about fear, which he's been talking a lot about in the last four years, creating in effect a fear-driven nation. He talks about freedom. Instead of talking about terror, he talks about tyranny.

WARNER: Right. He never used the war on terror -


WARNER: -- or terror at all --

BRZEZINSKI: So the themes are a little different. It's freedom versus tyranny. But where are the tyrannies? In fact, the really serious tyrannies are the ones we have to deal with. And we're not going to deal with them the way we have dealt with Iraq. So as a statement of a program, it's vacuous. As a sermon, it's nice, it's moving, and has some elegant moments, but it's vacuous.

WARNER: How do you think our allies -

MEAD: Vacuous, I think is the last thing I would call it. Yes, it's nonspecific. Yes, it's general. But my guess is that you'll be able to look at the steps the administration takes in future months and years and its general approach and you will see these themes worked out. Now, my guess again would be --

BRZEZINSKI: Give me examples vis--vis China or Russia, for example -how would this be applied?

MEAD: Well, I think, again, this administration probably has seen that China in the last few years has been much more assertive internationally.

BRZEZINSKI: So how are we going to promote freedom in China?

MEAD: Well, my guess is we will probably be nicer to dissidents. I think when you saw in the tsunami relief that Japan, Australia, India and the United States are working together in this relief effort, you're seeing in a sense the beginnings of what might grow into a kind of a Pacific NATO. And so the administration is, in fact, probably -- there was some sense right after Sept. 11 that a lot of the Neo-cons who have been worried about Chinese power for a long time were pushing China aside, the Middle East was everything. My guess is that --

BRZEZINSKI: I doubt it. You know, we deal, for example, with the North Korean bomb. We need the Chinese for that.

MEAD: Well, that's true. No one ever said foreign policy isn't complicated.

BRZEZINSKI: It's not going to be an assault on tyranny; it's going to be done in marginal adjustments.

WARNER: So you don't think if you're one of the oppressed people, whether you're the Tibetans or in any other of these countries or, you know, a Saudi who doesn't have political rights, that you don't think they will read this speech as some sort of a promise of American solidarity with them?

BRZEZINSKI: If the tyranny that oppresses them involves a weak state, perhaps yes. If it involves serious states, I think the answer is, as a practical matter, no.

WARNER: Well -

MEAD: This is exactly what people said about Jimmy Carter's human rights pledge.

BRZEZINSKI: We had a dilemma. Remember, when we came to office, we had a real dilemma on that issue. And some people wanted to apply it only to Argentina, but not to the Soviet Union. We did apply it to the Soviet Union.

MARGARET WARNER: On that note, we're going to have to leave it. But thank you, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Walter Russell Mead.

* * * * *

[PS: Nobody else seems to have noticed, but Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson seems to have appropriated "fires of freedom" from Ron Chernow's wonderful biography of Alexander Hamilton. It was Hamilton's son Philip, a 20-year-old student at Columbia who complained to his father that Columbia's president made him strike the following from a speech he had written because it was too ornate: "Americans, you have fought the battles of mankind, you have enkindled that sacred fire of freedom." p. 651 JW]