No lack of vision thing

Posted: Jan 21, 2005 12:00 AM

George W. Bush is, above all, an idealist. We saw it during his first term in his passionate advocacy of faith-based charity and in his ardent desire to reform education. This is not a leader who thinks small.

 Now, by inaugurating his second term with a sweeping declaration of ambition for world freedom, he has found the perfect mold into which to pour his vaulting idealism. Echoing the words from Leviticus that grace the Liberty Bell, "Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof," President Bush declared that those words have meaning still. "America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof."

 Impossibly grandiose? Impractical? Wilsonian? Perhaps. And yet, the president made clear in a speech that was also an argument that his is no ivory-tower idealism. "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one." We are faced with a world made frighteningly smaller by modern technology. Our enemies, nurtured in the bitter backwaters of repression and religious bigotry, can do incalculable harm with modern weapons. And though we may prepare, we cannot possibly defend ourselves against every terrorist with a grudge.

 Freedom, the president argues, is the only solution to this grim threat. The more places liberty takes root, the safer the world, and we ourselves will be. "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." In this address, the president answered those who say that the Iraq War was a mistake, that the absence of weapons of mass destruction made the whole enterprise an empty and shameful waste of blood and money. It was not a mistake, the president urges, because it is part of a protracted struggle to liberate enslaved people. The U.S. cannot free every repressed population through armed intervention (the Iraqis were some of the fortunate few), but 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." There is no problem with the "vision thing" in the administration of George W. Bush.

 Doubters will scold that the task the president has undertaken is impossibly ambitious, that we cannot even confidently predict a benevolent outcome in Iraq, far less the whole teeming world. But the president's speech -- with its sweeping scope -- demands that critics at least provide an alternative. Promoting and nurturing freedom in darker corners of the world is difficult. But not doing so, the president argues, is dangerous.

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.

Nor does encouraging freedom mean imposing American values on unwilling recipients.

Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave.

 Rarely has a president embarking upon a second term undertaken such an ambitious agenda. At home as well as abroad, this president is bold and courageous. He has chosen to take on Social Security as part of his "ownership society," though nothing in the actuarial tables or the political calculus of Republican ascendancy required it. This is not politics, but statesmanship.

 Guiding everything President Bush does is his abiding faith in God. This was not an inaugural to suit Michael Newdow's taste. He will have cringed to hear the president invoke "the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people." He must have stuffed newspaper in his ears when mezzo-soprano Susan Graham sang "God Bless this House," and when the president declared that "God moves and chooses as He wills." But the greatest rhetoric in American history, from the Declaration of Independence to Lincoln's second inaugural, has invoked the Almighty. And one needn't be a Christian to see that faith guides George W. Bush to, in Lincoln's words, find "firmness in the right, as God gives [him] to see the right."