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The Cynics Are Wrong About Bush's Second Inaugural: His Rhetoric Likely Will Have Positive Consequences

The accusations of hypocrisy were inevitable. Journalists found themselves compelled to point out that the United States has drawn ever closer to Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as a result of the War on Terror. The president’s critics dismissed his inaugural address as a pleasant fiction designed to mask the hard core of an American foreign policy exemplified by the abuse of prisoners at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. Sadly, their analysis ended there.

In order to understand the true significance of the second inaugural, one must look forward to the impact it will have on Bush’s second term instead of only looking back at the compromises and failures that may impair the credibility of the President’s words.

For the past four years, I have studied the relationship between idealistic rhetoric and the less-than-idealistic nature of American foreign policy. The most important lesson buried in the historical record is that idealistic rhetoric tends to generate a momentum of its own that gradually brings American behavior into line with American ideals.

The best illustration of this trend is the rapid evolution of America’s relationship with anti-Communist dictatorships during Ronald Reagan’s second term in office. In the State of the Union address that followed shortly after his second inaugural, Reagan declared that “We must stand by all our democratic allies. And we must not break faith with those who are risking their lives – on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua – to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth.”

With amazing precision, responses to the “Reagan Doctrine” prefigured the exact criticism that has confroned George W. Bush’s second inaugural. In 1985, journalists found themselves compelled to point out that the United States had drawn closer to the Filipino, South Korean and Chilean dictatorships as a result of the Cold War. The president’s critics dismissed his inaugural address as a pleasant fiction designed to mask the hard core of an American foreign policy exemplified by the massacres in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Sadly, their analysis ended there.

In 1986, the United States helped bring down the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. In 1987, it played an important role in the South Korean transition to democracy. Shortly after Reagan left office, Pinochet fell from power in Chile and the Sandinista dictatorship came to an end in Nicaragua.

Reagan himself often served as a hindrance to such positive developments. Yet his rhetoric empowered idealistic Republicans, both within the administration and on Capitol Hill, to place American power in the service of American ideals. Although events in the Philippines made few headlines until the final months of the Marcos dictatorship, officials such as then-Assistant Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz helped the Filipino opposition prepare the ground for a revolution.

In spite of overwhelming evidence that Marcos had rigged the February 1986 elections in order to preserve his dictatorship, Reagan embarrassingly defended the balloting as fair. Yet Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) – then, as now, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – returned from his mission to the Philippines as an election monitor and declared the election to have been a total fraud. Within days, Reagan revised his earlier statements and ushered Marcos into exile in Hawaii.

The experience of the second Reagan administration demonstrates just how much rhetoric can accomplish even when the president’s commitment to his own ideals is less than firm. However, the most striking difference between the president of 1985 and the president of 2005 is that George W. Bush has a far greater awareness of and commitment to the implications of his rhetoric.

Shortly after his re-election in November, President Bush made a personal decision to devote his inaugural address to an expansive vision of freedom spreading across the globe. The precise content of that address developed slowly through twenty-one separate drafts. During its development, the White House consulted leading conservative thinkers on the subject of American foreign policy and democracy promotion.

Although every inaugural address since Carter’s has made a passing reference to the spread of freedom across the globe, such references described the United States as playing a passive role in the process. Thus, in his first inaugural, President Bush spoke of freedom as “a seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations.” In contrast, the president now speaks of an American mission and argues that “it is human choices that move events.”

Journalists’ observations about our close relationships with Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia often imply that the president remains blissfully unaware of the contradictions between his rhetoric and his government’s behavior. Yet the inaugural address warned America's authoritarian allies that “success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people.”

Which is not to say that criticism of the president is superfluous. In fact, it will have a critical role to play in ensuring that he lives up to his ideals. Inevitably, the temptations of short-term expedience will distract the president from his ultimate goals. It is at precisely such moments that the soaring rhetoric of his second inaugural will empower critics both within the administration and without to insist that the president live up to his word.

The president may be counting on just that sort of criticism to ensure that he earns his place in the history books.


This article first appeared on Oxblog Jan. 26, 2005 and is reprinted with permission of the author.