Bush’s Goals Are Clear, But Means Remain Murky
George W. Bush’s second term likely will be shaped far more by what he did not say in his inaugural address than by what he did say.
Like all presidents, Bush centered his speech more on his goals than his means of accomplishing them. But it is his means, more than his ends, that ignite such impassioned division at home and abroad.
Few Americans would quarrel with the twin ambitions that anchored Bush’s speech: encouraging the spread of liberty abroad and increasing ownership and economic choice at home. But the looming question is whether Bush’s policies are moving the nation and the world toward achieving those aims, much less at a price most Americans consider acceptable.
This debate is most advanced on foreign policy. Bush framed America’s international mission with a messianic sweep. Only by expanding liberty across the globe, Bush insisted, can America drain the resentments and hatreds that inspire terrorism.
Most experts are probably willing to grant Bush’s premise that a world in which more citizens could express their beliefs and elect representative governments would be a tougher place for terrorists to recruit. Far less certain is whether his strategy is bringing us closer to such a world.
Relentless bombings and bloodshed underscore the distance Iraq must travel to reach a stable democracy, even after its Jan. 30 election. The chaos has also dimmed the odds that the election will produce a domino effect that pressures other Middle Eastern autocrats to loosen their own yokes. At least for now, emulating Iraq can’t be much of a rallying cry.
Even some observers generally critical of Bush acknowledge that the removal of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has encouraged democratic activists across the Middle East. The paradox is that the invasion of Iraq and the continuing violence there has so damaged America’s reputation in the region that the reformers -- and even the idea of democracy itself -- may be losing legitimacy in the Arab world.
Equally thorny is the issue of cost. In his 1961 inaugural, John F. Kennedy stirringly asked Americans “to pay any price, bear any burden” in defense of liberty. But Americans proved unwilling to write such an open-ended check when such soaring poetry crashed into the mud and blood of Vietnam.
Bush’s pledge that the U.S. will seek to deliver “liberty throughout all the world” provides an inspiring mission that could reduce international resentment of American power by applying it to a noble end. But as was the case in Vietnam, Americans must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice in Iraq -- much less anywhere else -- to redeem that promise.
That question will be posed most sharply if Bush asks soldiers to die to overthrow another Middle East tyranny. But even if that day never arrives, America still must assess how much of its other interests it is willing to sacrifice to truly promote freedom in countries it generally views as allies, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China or Russia.
So far, despite his heartfelt eloquence, the president’s answer has been the same as that of his predecessors: not much.
That may be the most realistic answer. But it is one that threatens to undermine Bush’s credibility by suggesting that his thirst for democracy extends only to regimes the U.S. considers hostile.
As for Bush’s pledge to promote an “ownership society” in America, the real dispute again turns on means: whether Bush’s approach to “making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny” empowers Americans or isolates them by undermining the collective institutions we have built to safeguard each other from life’s reversals.
Bush would allow workers to divert part of their Social Security taxes into private investment accounts, but that would increase the pressure to cut the system’s guaranteed retirement benefits. He wants more workers to pay for their healthcare with tax-favored accounts, but his vision risks unraveling the system of employer-provided insurance that covers most Americans.
On both fronts, more ownership could mean more opportunity, but also a dangerous shift of risk from collective institutions (government, group insurance) to the individual.
This president never lacks for ambition. He identified goals -- “ending tyranny in the world” and creating a domestic society free from “want and fear” -- that embody this nation’s most unifying hopes and aspirations.
But the applause won’t be nearly as universal for the paths he has chosen to reach those glittering destinations.
See past Brownstein columns on The Times’ website at www.latimes.com/brownstein.