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.
Reagan's support of democratic movements was vital. But so were his words by which he made clear to the world that the United States was going to quit meekly holding back and begin to take the fight to the communists. Both his words and deeds were instrumental in the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the defeat of world communism.
Today, we face a different global threat in the form of extreme Islamic terrorism. President Bush, like President Reagan, understands that ideas and words have consequences, and that it's important to fight terrorists not just with force of arms, but also with the power of ideas.
President Bush is saying that we are not going to sit around and wait for the next terrorist attack. We are going to take the offense, not just militarily against terrorists and the nations supporting them (preemptively, if necessary: The Bush Doctrine), but also in aggressively supporting democracy throughout the world by nonmilitary means. While the spread of democracy and liberty won't automatically eliminate terrorism, it will help to choke off the oxygen of oppression and poverty that terrorists breathe.
Perhaps, then, we should consider the president's speech as a non-military corollary to the Bush Doctrine. The Bush Doctrine says we will take preemptive military action, if necessary, against terrorists and supporting states, because containment and deterrence are no longer sufficient strategies to protect our national security.
The Bush corollary says that we will reject containment and deterrence on the nonmilitary front as well and will proactively support the spread of democracy through nonmilitary means.
So those who think that President Bush has issued a directive to the Pentagon's war games department to begin working up scenarios against every non-democratic nation in the world -- as distinguished from those who are supporting terrorists against the United States -- should take a deep breath.
And those, like the Los Angeles Times' Ron Brownstein, who think President Bush sent his father out to soften his inaugural message, need to re-read his speech and review his previous ones.
In his speech, the president offered no departures from his existing foreign policy, but provided a profound exposition and amplification of the Bush Doctrine by incorporating into it previously articulated and wholly consistent principles.