I happen to believe that President Bush's inaugural speech was both a very big deal and not that big of a deal at all, a classic paradox.
To be sure, President Bush laid out an idealistic foreign policy vision endorsing the transforming power of democracy and liberty. To be sure, he spoke expansively -- pun intended -- of freedom:
The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.
But these words represent no departure from the president's previous words. He has often before spoken of the contagious nature of freedom and democracy, suggesting that a democratic beachhead in the turbulent Mideast (other than Israel) could begin a domino effect on surrounding tyrannies.
"Yes," you say, "but he has never gone so far as to hint that, under his watch, America might seek to export democracy by military means. If there was any doubt before about his being an imperialistic, neoconservative warmonger, he removed it with that bellicose speech." Oh? Read on.
The president also said:
This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens ? America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal, instead, is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom and make their own way.
So chill out, folks. The president is not flexing America's military muscle here. He's not talking code to North Korea or Red China, warning them that they are on the short list.
I think a better way to understand the speech is to analogize it to President Reagan's new approach to the Cold War. Reagan's predecessors had mostly implemented the policy of containment -- with the goal of keeping communism from expanding further into unwilling nations.
But Reagan decided to announce a shift from our defensive posture of containment and go on the offense, seeking a "rollback" of communism in nations it had already consumed. And his words were more than just lofty rhetoric. While he didn't start militarily attacking foreign nations, he did aggressively support freedom movements. He did reinvigorate our nuclear program to dishearten and economically cripple the Soviet Union.