President Bush's historic second inaugural address will no doubt occasion endless amounts of insta-analysis (as opposed to the thoughtful and careful deliberation of this column). Much of that commentary will center around the alleged "radicalism" of President Bush's "freedom" agenda. Indeed, Time magazine already dubbed him an "American Revolutionary" in its 2004 Person of the Year issue.
In one sense, this is absolutely correct. In the context of American domestic politics, his plans for partial privatization of Social Security and for tax and tort reform can be called radical or revolutionary - given the discounted value of such terms in partisan politics. Though in the literal sense of these terms, revolutionaries and radicals tend not to introduce legislation so much as take over radio stations and call for the violent overthrow of the government.
But that is precisely what lies at the core of Bush's truly revolutionary foreign policy. He has already violently overthrown two governments, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he's made it clear that he wouldn't cry in his non-alcoholic beer if a few more regimes went the way of the dodo - with our help. In what may well be remembered as the most important inaugural in a half-century, the president declared:
Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world. All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.
That really is the stuff of an American Revolutionary.
But even here we need to qualify what we mean by the R-word. We think of revolutions as breaks with the past, but that needn't be the case. People with short memories - or even shorter emotional fuses when it comes to their Bush hatred - would have us believe that JFK meant something completely different than what Bush does when he said at his inauguration that America "shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty."
Before him, FDR appealed to the same creed when he unleashed the arsenal of democracy on Fascism. And Woodrow Wilson invoked it when he maneuvered America into a war to make the "world safe for democracy."
Now, Wilson has long been a villain to conservatives - and deservedly so. The superficial similarities between Bush's rhetoric and deeds and Wilson's has caused some to worry. Wilson's idealism and incompetence unleashed or hastened many of the horrors of the 20th century, abroad and at home. But there's a key difference between W and Wilson. While Wilson rightly championed liberty, he refused to ground his messianic zeal in American self-interest. Time and again he insisted America had "no selfish ends to serve" and that the United States was going to war solely because "the right is more precious than peace" - as if Americans should be ashamed of their self-interest. This made World War I a war of choice and do-gooderism more similar intellectually to Bill Clinton's efforts in Haiti and Bosnia than George W. Bush's in Iraq and Afghanistan.
George W. Bush grounds his doctrine in the soil of American self-interest.
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: 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.
For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny - prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder - violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat.
This has the priorities in the right order. We fight tyranny because it is in our interest to do so. We are morally justified in our task because the fight against tyranny is a noble cause.
This formulation will no doubt stick in the craws of self-described "paleoconservatives" who claim to be the heirs of the "real" conservative movement and who pull their hair and rend their clothes in protest of Bush's allegedly "neoconservative" radicalism. They might remind themselves that "hawkishness" in the name of liberty was the principle which birthed the conservative movement. The supposed "isolationists" these "paleos" celebrate were calling for "rollback, not containment" of the Red Menace long before the "neocons" were called hawks for wanting to increase funding for the National Endowment for Democracy. Some even endorsed the notion that nuclear annihilation was worth the price of liberty.
What conservatives understood then and what President Bush understands now is that America itself is a radical nation, founded on the revolutionary principle that self-government is simultaneously the best form of government and the most moral. And that lovers of liberty in all parties should seek to conserve that legacy. The circumstances we face today are new, but the principles are eternal. So, yes, George W. Bush is a revolutionary, but he is merely the latest in a long line of American Revolutionaries.
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