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The rhetoricof freedom

Bush's pledge to hold all accountable would be historic ' if he means it

The Washington Post

We are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom. So President Bush on Thursday concluded an inaugural address of expansive idealism, breathtaking ambition ' and uncertain relevance to the policies he will pursue in a second term.

With rhetoric that soared above a Capitol surrounded by defensive barriers, a country sharply divided by his record and the grueling war in Iraq to which 150,000 American soldiers are committed, the president pledged 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. More Wilsonian than conservative ' and far from the modest themes of domestic justice and opportunity he spoke about four years ago ' Bush's address promised an aggressive internationalism, one that if seriously pursued would transform relations with many nations around the world.

The president rooted his vision in the day of fire that defined his first term. Yet he did not speak more directly of Sept. 11, 2001, and he did not, as he has so often since then, define the threat as one of terrorism, or the response as war. Neither word appeared in his address. Bush instead declared that the deepest source of American vulnerability was foreign tyranny, which he said made whole regions of the world ... prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder. What has been a war on terrorism, Bush seemed to be saying, must now become a global struggle against dictatorship. The survival of liberty in our land, he said, increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The fire of freedom, he said, will reach the darkest corners of our world.

The president is proposing an extraordinary escalation of national aims, but it's not clear what practical action, if any, he has in mind. Inaugural addresses are meant to outline large themes rather than prosaic programs, but Bush's text seemed exceptional in its untethering from the world.

In a speech lasting 21 minutes, the president used the word freedom 27 times and liberty 15, but he never once mentioned Iraq, where at least 11 U.S. soldiers had died in the previous seven days. Domestic affairs were thinly covered, and then mostly in the larger context of spreading freedom. Our country must abandon all the habits of racism, Bush said in one of his best phrases, because we cannot carry the message of freedom and the baggage of bigotry at the same time.

— Those seeking hints of policy might focus on Bush's declaration that our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill and would be dishonorable to abandon, which presumably applies to Iraq and Afghanistan. He suggested that his administration would henceforth refuse to ignore or excuse oppression, by standing with democratic reformers facing repression and by making clear that success in our relations with other countries will require the decent treatment of their own people.

That's a policy with which we agree ' and which, until now, Bush has not pursued. He has promoted democracy when it has coincided with other U.S. interests, as in Iraq, Iran and the Palestinian territories. When opposition to tyranny has been at odds with security or economic policy ' in Pakistan, in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia, in Russia, in China ' the Bush administration of the past four years consistently chose to ignore and excuse oppression.

Anyone judging by Bush's speech Thursday would have to conclude that U.S. policy toward those countries, and many others, is on the verge of a historic change. If not, his promise of the greatest achievements in the history of freedom will be remembered as grandiose and hollow.