Old Media Still Confused over Bush Speech

January 24, 2005

I have written in several posts now — here and here — that people might be reading a bit too much into President Bush’s inaugural speech, if they assume he means to launch a new era of American aggression. This morning, ABC’s “The Note,” expressed its utter confusion over the speech and the White House’s immediate retreat from its grandiose themes. The Notesters wrote:

It’s now tempting to treat the President’s inaugural address like the 1986 season of “Dallas” that was Pam Ewing’s dream — something that we all THOUGHT we experienced, but that — it turns out — didn’t really happen.

To review: the very, very meticulous, media-savvy Bush White House had the President give a huge, historic speech in which there was unambiguously only one lead/headline possible — the President was adapting a new paradigmatic extension of the Bush Doctrine that called for fundamentally remaking America’s relationships around the world based on the supreme value of supporting democratization.

For more than 24 hours, all the Gang of 500 talked about was how big a deal all this was, how unachievable, how weighted with implications for Saudi Arabia, Russia, etc, etc, etc.

Then the White House started background sessions (supplemented by a “surprise” weekend briefing room drop-by by 41) in which they said that this was “nothing new,” “long-term,” “broad goals,” etc, etc, etc.

So: the President was for democracy on January 19th, on January 20th, and today. But he didn’t really mean to suggest any new policy in his historic, ambitious inaugural address.

I think the Notesters are presenting a false choice here. I think the president did give an historic, far-reaching speech, but that it doesn’t represent a major shift from his current foreign policy. Instead, it provides a deeper and more expansive intellectual framework, and apologetic — the rationale — for this already-in-place policies.

When his father and others insisted that President Bush was not going to embark on some imperialistic new course, the Notesters and others are assuming the president has significantly retreated from his speech, as if he was throwing it’s principles up as a Clintonian trial balloon. But all they have to do is to go back and review the president’s prior consistent remarks about the War on Terror and they will find that he has almost always framed the war in terms of a struggle between forces of good and evil, of democracy and dictatorship, of freedom and oppression. No major changes here.

But given the comprehensive assaults on his policies, especially focused on Iraq, and given that inaugurals are appropriate times for big ideas, President Bush just tried to articulate his existing vision with a little more flare and punch. He believes, and has believed for some time, that it is important to the war itself that we understand the stakes. It’s not just a war with guns, bullets and bombs. Terrorism flourishes in backward countries and backward countries are generally strangers to freedom and democracy. So President Bush attempted to connect the dots explicitly for us and the rest of the world.

There is nothing wrong with him expressing his vision in broad, glowing terms, and there is nothing wrong with him further elaborating following the speech. There is no inconsistency between the grand vision of liberty and democracy and his approach to the War on Terror. So, again, people should just calm down a little about this. President Bush is not getting ready to start a new war. We’re already in one — and it is broad in scope.