Repackaging the Message

Bush's address expanded the war on terrorism into a war on tyranny.

By William Schneider

In his Inaugural Address, President Bush spoke of healing. "We have known divisions which must be healed to move forward in great purposes," he declared on January 20, "and I will strive in good faith to heal them."

But it wasn't a healing speech. Rather, it was a bold and uncompromising statement of neoconservative ideology. To some Americans and to many people overseas, the speech signaled a radical shift in foreign policy. A senior Bush administration official tried the next day to the calm the waters by saying, "It is not a discontinuity. It is not a right turn.... It is a bit of an acceleration, a raising of the priority" of a "message we have been sending."

That is true. The president articulated the same message almost every day on the campaign trail: The best way to protect the security of the United States is to promote democracy in other countries. What Bush did on January 20 was repackage the message. He expanded the war on terrorism into a war on tyranny. "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands," Bush said. "So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture—with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

This is now the Bush Doctrine, formulated in consultation with neoconservative intellectuals and praised by them. "It was a rare inaugural speech that will go down as a historic speech, I believe," William Kristol told The Washington Post. Most neoconservatives were once Democrats, and they continue to believe in the pre-Vietnam War tradition of the Democratic Party: great enterprises for great purposes, at home and abroad. That's the Democratic Party of Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson—not the Democratic Party of George McGovern, Bill Clinton, and John Kerry, which has become the guardian of the safety net.

Small-government conservatives were put off by Bush's speech. Pat Buchanan said that Bush "has asserted a right to intervene in the internal affairs of every nation on Earth. And that is, quite simply, a recipe for endless war. And war is the death of republics." Old-school Republicans worry that ideological zealots have hijacked their party's grand tradition of realism and multilateralism in foreign policy.

What about the Nixon-Kissinger belief in a "balance of power"? "We must use American diplomacy to help create a balance of power in the world that favors freedom," Condoleezza Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She calls that "transformational diplomacy."

Bush portrayed his message as idealism. ("America has need of idealism and courage.") But what many listeners heard was interventionism. "Yikes! More Iraqs!" Democrats responded.

The president's father felt compelled to appear in the White House briefing room to deny allegations that the son was repudiating the father's approach. "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 January 22. He cautioned that people "certainly ought not to read into it any arrogance on the part of the United States."

The same day, former Pentagon adviser Richard Perle, a godfather to neoconservatives, told The Washington Post, "Put this in a historic perspective. [Bush] has already created profound change. All around the Middle East, they're talking about the issue of democracy. They're talking about his agenda."

True, but they're talking with some skepticism. "What [Bush] said is great, and we completely agree," one Saudi reformer told The Post. "But the question is, how can you impose freedom? Is military intervention the right way to do it? I don't think it's been a very successful attempt at all." A Jordanian publisher noted, "You cannot forget the effect [the] Abu Ghraib [prisoner-abuse scandal] had on American credibility here."

Iraq is the great test case for the Bush Doctrine. And the outcome there is not yet clear. Moreover, the doctrine's premise is arguable. Would the United States really be more secure if countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan became democracies? Would freely elected governments in those countries be friendlier to the United States than their current repressive regimes?

Interviewed by Gallup on the night of the president's speech, Americans endorsed the Bush Doctrine in principle. By 60 percent to 35 percent, they agreed that "spreading democracy throughout the world is essential for U.S. security." But by exactly the same ratio, people said that the United States will be unable to achieve Bush's "ultimate goal" of "ending tyranny in the world."

Americans saw Bush as a uniter when he took office in 2001. By 58 percent to 36 percent, the public labeled him a uniter rather than a divider in a January 2001 Gallup Poll. But as Bush begins his second term, 49 percent call him a uniter and 49 percent call him a divider. Americans are divided over whether Bush is dividing the country.

In January 2001, pollsters asked Americans to predict whether the new president would heal the nation's political divisions. Fifty-three percent said no. Four years later, do people think that Bush healed those divisions in his first term? Sixty-eight percent said no. Do people think he will heal those divisions in his second term? Sixty-four percent said no.

Divided we stand.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/02/repackaging-the-message/303776/