A clue to what the president will say in his second inaugural address this morning lies in the words he delivered four years ago: "Through much of the last century, America's faith in freedom and democracy was a rock in a raging sea. Now it is a seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations."
He spoke four years ago of the seeds of freedom planted in Eastern Europe, seeds whose consequences eventually tumbled the Berlin Wall and collapsed the Iron Curtain. Today the seeds of freedom are riding a fresh wind in the Middle East. It's not yet clear whether democracy can flower in that part of the world, but some of the signs are promising. Brave men and women summoned considerable courage to cast their votes in Afghanistan. Their Muslim brothers and sisters are preparing to vote in Iraq later this month. Who could have predicted that four years ago?
"It's been a remarkable three months in the history of mankind," President Bush told me in an interview at the White House last week. "Elections in Afghanistan, elections in the Palestinian territory, and elections to be in Iraq."
He knows that many Americans think that an Islamic democracy cannot thrive, or even survive very long, in the Middle East. He is not such a pessimist. He urges Americans to read "The Case for Democracy," by Natan Sharansky, for clues to the source of his optimism. Sharansky spent nine years in a Soviet gulag and when he was freed he went to Israel, where he became a force for vigorous democracy. "The book," the president says, "will help explain a lot of the decisions that you'll see being made - you've seen made, and will continue to see made."
The common philosophy of the two men is based on the assumption that men and women share a universal desire to live in freedom, not fear. "Indeed, given a choice, the vast majority of people will always prefer a free society to a fear society," writes Sharansky. They may not always have that freedom, but given the right conditions freedom will out.
The president and the Soviet dissident quote each other and neither approaches the subject with the naivet?f which they are often accused. They echo the words of the Russian human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov, who believed that humanitarian values must undergird international security: "A country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respect the rights of its neighbors."
As the Twin Towers lay in smoldering rubble and the nation summoned its righteous anger, the president argued that "freedom and democracy are critical to defeating terror" because "free nations that respect human rights will help overcome hatred, resentment and the ideologies of murder."
The president's inaugural speech this time will be about liberty, promoting his vision of protecting security here by planting and nurturing seeds abroad. I suspect he will fuse his sunny idealism with cold realism, in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson. In a much-ridiculed remark on the eve of World War I, Wilson said the nation was entering a war to make the world "safe for democracy." That does not sound ridiculous today.
America can't be the policeman of the world, but it can make changes that are in both our interests and the interests of others longing to be free. We have done that in Afghanistan and are doing that in Iraq. History does not move in a straight line, but lurches in fits and starts, tripping and turning over in often rocky terrain. But the history of America moves in a direction that honors liberty, with the strength that encourages self-correction.
As the president noted four years ago, the American story is "a story of flawed and fallible people, united across the generations by grand and enduring ideals." It's a story that keeps moving: "It is the story of a new world that became a friend and liberator of the old, a story of a slave-holding society that became a servant of freedom, the story of a power that went into the world to protect but not to possess, to defend but not to conquer."
Nine months after his first inauguration, the nation - and the world - was transformed on a bright blue September morning. The terrorists destroyed innocent lives on American soil that sad September day, but not American idealism. We argue about means, not ends. Now as then we remain "confident in principles that unite and lead us onward."