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January 24, 2005

The Speech That Wasn't What It Seemed

I'll stop calling the Bush administration "Orwellian" when they stop using 1984 as an operations manual.

Dan Froomkin reports on the pathbreaking inaugural address that wasn't:

The Speech That Wasn't What It Seemed (washingtonpost.com): The initial reaction to President Bush's second inaugural speech, in which he vowed to end tyranny everywhere, was that it sounded awfully ambitious. But now comes word from the White House that Bush wasn't actually setting out a new agenda at all. He was simply describing what his approach has been all along. And that has invited additional concerns, among them that revisionism may be pushing aside reality-checking in the Bush White House.

In hindsight, the White House is apparently suggesting, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq weren't so much about bringing Osama bin Laden to justice and destroying Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. They were about lighting the flame of freedom. Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei wrote in Saturday's Washington Post about the recasting by the White House on Friday. "White House officials said yesterday that President Bush's soaring inaugural address, in which he declared the goal of ending tyranny around the world, represents no significant shift in U.S. foreign policy but instead was meant as a crystallization and clarification of policies he is pursuing in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and elsewhere. . . . The speech Bush delivered Thursday at the Capitol appeared to set the United States on a new course in foreign policy, a pivot from the focus on terrorism, which has defined Bush's presidency since Sept. 11, 2001, to confronting tyranny as the enemy that threatens global security."

But no, that's not what he meant, apparently.

"Bush advisers said the speech was the rhetorical institutionalization of the Bush doctrine and reflected the president's deepest convictions about the purposes behind his foreign policies. . . . 'It has its own policy implications, but it is not to say we're not doing this already,' said White House counselor Daniel J. Bartlett."

What caused such a consistent misreading? "White House officials argued that some observers have read more into the speech than is there. 'The speech was carefully and purposely nuanced,' said presidential speechwriter and policy adviser Michael J. Gerson."

Maybe it's worth reading again, then. Here's the transcript. "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," Bush said. "Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time. So 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."

Still sounds an awful lot like a call to arms, doesn't it? Fareed Zakaria writes in Newsweek that the speech may call unwanted attention to the gap between the results of Bush's actions and the freedom he spoke of so rapturously. "The chasm between rhetoric and reality, while inevitable, is striking. The Bush administration has not been particularly vociferous in holding dictators to account -- no more or less, really, than other recent administrations." And, Zakaria writes: "While Bush has been visionary in his goals, he has not provided much practical wisdom on how to attain them in a complex world. This lack of attention to the long, hard slog of actually promoting democracy might explain why things have gone so poorly in the most important practical application of the Bush Doctrine so far -- Iraq. Convinced that bringing freedom to a country meant simply getting rid of the tyrant, the Bush administration seems to have done virtually no serious postwar planning to keep law and order, let alone to build the institutions of a democratic state."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times that "the Iraq invasion has hurt the image in the region not only of the United States, but also of democracy itself. . . . The failure to acknowledge this backlash may have been the most important flaw in Bush's speech. Bush declared freedom a universal right; yet apart from a passing reference to allies, he spoke of its spread as an American mission. . . . [H]is speech yet again signaled that he sees the spread of democracy as a uniquely American responsibility. He would do better to build a club of democracies that tangibly rewards nations on the path to freedom. America doesn't need to do this job alone. More importantly, it can't."

Posted by DeLong at January 24, 2005 11:21 AM

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When Bush starts to do something about ending tyranny in Saudia Arabia I will start believing him.

Posted by: spencer at January 24, 2005 11:25 AM

typical CEO mentality

"I set the goal of increasing Market Share" - it's up to someone else to figure out how.

Posted by: ed_finnerty at January 24, 2005 11:54 AM

I'm repeating myself from blog comments elsewhere, but doesn't ending tyranny fall under the purview of Bush's initiative to rid the world of "evil-doers," announced in the week after 9/11. E.g.: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&safe=off&c2coff=1&q=rid+world+evil-doers&btnG=Search

Tyrants are, after, all evil-doers, so announcing the end of tyranny is in fact a scaling back of ambitions.

I often get the sense that pundits are so ashamed of the respectful tone they took to Bush's "evil-doer" claptrap--oops, I mean moral clarity--that they are now eager to cooperate with Bush in pretending it never happened. Notice that Bush himself doesn't even talk about evil-doers anymore.

Posted by: Paul Callahan at January 24, 2005 11:59 AM

The Bush doctrine, as written, is pretty clearly about US security and US national interest. By extension, since US security and interests are linked to those of our allies, they fall under the umbrella of US preemptive action. This recasting of the doctrine as a declaration of US intention to promote freedom of all people everywhere looks like another in a long line of recastings of the Iraq misadventure. I've had it up to my hairline with simple-mindedness being peddled as moral clarity. Bush wasn't smart enough or willing to work hard enough ("destabilizing Iraq is hard work") to figure out an appropriate policy toward Iraq, so just spin his intellectual bankruptcy as "moral clarity."

That said, thank your stars if the inaugural address didn't really show new foreign policy ambition from Bush.

Posted by: kharris at January 24, 2005 12:21 PM

As far as I'm concerned, he can say whatever he wants. But when he starts mutilating Dostoyevsky...

Posted by: Grant at January 24, 2005 12:33 PM

>Convinced that bringing freedom to a country meant simply getting rid of the tyrant

He couldn't have put it more simply and accurately than that.

Christ, even the super-intellectuals gathered here enjoy Tolkien (or I didn't notice their absence from the discussions), but nobody takes LOTR seriously as a blueprint for fixing the world.

Posted by: a different chris at January 24, 2005 01:24 PM

Pointless comment: don't you love that phrase 'rhetorical instituionalisation'? If Bushies didn't really mean what he's clearly saying, he should really be rhetorically institutionalised.

Totally agree with kharris. For a while, I thought Bush is going to invade the largest dictatorship in the world: China. Even he can't be as stupid as that.

Posted by: weco at January 24, 2005 02:54 PM

>'The speech was carefully and purposely nuanced'
What? I thought the point made during the campaign was that Bush did not do 'nuance'!

Posted by: Dan at January 24, 2005 03:37 PM

What did Bush realy mean by his speach? The truth is, he probably didn't really mean anything at all.

Posted by: rea at January 24, 2005 03:44 PM

Bush a visionary? Not a chance

Bush having visions (aka hallucinations)? Maybe.

Bush raising the bar on cynicism? Sounds about right.

Posted by: RickG at January 24, 2005 06:51 PM

> What? I thought the point made during the campaign was that Bush did not do 'nuance'!

You must have missed the news story earlier this month:

Bush flip flops on tough talk
Says he should have been more nuanced

OK, that's the headline I would have written. The original was:
Bush regrets language that hurt diplomacy
President says ‘Bring ’em on’ left wrong impression

Posted by: Paul Callahan at January 24, 2005 07:03 PM

It sounds like President Bush is looking for his very own flying SopWith Camel...

Let's not forget the 3 Slogans courtesy of the Ministry of Truth (from 1984):

1. War is Peace
2. Freedom is Slavery
3. Ignorance is Strength.

Now, consider THAT, against President Bush's recent inagural address. Yikes.

Posted by: Red Baron at January 24, 2005 07:45 PM

All during the campaign, Bush was saying "don't judge me by my actions, judge me by my words." Now, we're not even allowed to judge those. What are we allowed to judge him by?

Posted by: Unstable Isotope at January 25, 2005 03:41 AM

I think the next step for bush* will be speaking at the UN where he starts banging his shoe on the podium shouting "We will bury you, We will bury you."

Posted by: JB at January 25, 2005 06:41 AM

kharris wrote: "The Bush doctrine, as written, is pretty clearly about US security and US national interest."

Now I get it. When he promised to rid the world of "evil-doers" he meant those who plan evil against the US and its allies, not all people who do some sort of evil (as I naively understand him to mean). So it's actually an extension of the Bush, ahem, doctrine to include tyrants who do evil within their national boundaries.

Uh, well, that's a relief I guess.

I think I'm finally beginning to understand the role of the punditry. Basically, Bush gets up there and says totally crazy sh*t. It is the job of the punditry to massage it into something that they can call the Bush doctrine without admitting to being crazy themselves.

Posted by: Paul Callahan at January 25, 2005 09:12 AM

"What did Bush realy mean by his speach? The truth is, he probably didn't really mean anything at all."

Unless, of course, you include misdirection as having meaning.

Posted by: Dubblblind at January 25, 2005 10:06 AM

"Basically, Bush gets up there and says totally crazy sh*t. It is the job of the punditry to massage it into something that they can call the Bush doctrine without admitting to being crazy themselves."

Ah! Bush as the Delphi Pythoness.

But they didn't give the oracle control of the nukes....

Posted by: J Thomas at January 25, 2005 02:28 PM

Just a comment from a very interested and directly affected non-american.

It's all very well to ridicule that man on blogs or over cups of coffee, but what is the good half of america going to do about winning the next election?
Are the American conservatives going to be magically filled with remorse over the mess that man has created in our part of the world? If they haven't got it by now, they are never going to get it.

So now what? How does one prevent another neo-con from getting in and screwing with innocent people's lives?

I wish I could help.... sorry! and good luck!

Posted by: marvan at January 26, 2005 12:28 PM

I have been amazed that everyone(print/here/there/everywhere) has taken the speech seriously enough to discuss/debate/fret and 'interpret' it. To my admittedly reclusive mind, this speech was merely a rhetorical-and BRAZEN- denial of the reality in Iraq: I could just hear Rove saying to Gerson, the speechwriter, "Let's make the in-augural address about... NATION BUILDING!"...as in, 'we are not perpetrators of diabolical incompetence, but rather Iraq is such a success, we are actually optimistic about continuing this grand experience!" The speech was ONLY about their outrageous (surrealistic) BALLS...(pardon the Belle of Amherst...)
And they are having a great laugh: rather that people talking about what's happening over at Walter Reed and Iraq- the disaster/tragedy and lack of a plan, Vis a Vis the speech, everyone is all busy deconstructing it as if it were seriously intended. (such a ridiculous speech also provides the (feeble) basis for an exit strategy',for which the Joint Chiefs and commanders in theatre must be desperate. ANYONE OUT THERE AT ALL Who agrees?

Posted by: emily dickenson at January 29, 2005 04:38 PM

Emily, try this analogy.

It used to be, whoever was running the Kremlin did whatever they wanted independent of soviet public opinion. And every now and then they'd have speeches (like May Day etc) where they said things. And when they did, western analysits and russian civilians etc pored over every sentence trying to guess what the soviets might do based on the speeches. It wasn't that we had strong reason to believe the speeches were predictive, it's that we had very little else to go on. So then predictably the Kremlin started saying things in the speeches to influence russian civilians and US analysts etc, because they knew those people were getting influenced. Since we were going to read special meanings into the speeches anyway, why not put in special meanings for us to read? So then we did have strong reason to believe the speeches said something about soviet intentions -- the speeches told us how the kremlin wanted us to think about them, what they wanted us to predict they'd do.

Similarly, nobody has much idea what Bush will do. He doesn't need to pay attention to US public opinion unless he cares about the long-run future of his party. And possibly they have things worked out so they'll get majorities in elections no matter what, and they have enough control over the media that the public will tend to believe the election results even when common sense says not to. It looks like nobody has much influence over the federal government any more except a small group of insiders, and we can't predict what they'll do. Invade iran? Kick the UN out of new york? Send death squads into france to kill muslim leaders? Nuke somebody? Who knows? So people look for cues in Bush's speeches. Since Bush's people know that the pundits will look for clues, why wouldn't they provide them? It only makes sense to give people some idea what to get ready for. But maybe they look at it the other way round. They can do things without giving us notice ahead of time, and we'll get used to not getting any clues. So why give us any?

So if we wake up one morning and find out that we invaded iran (or syria, which no one is talking about much since we're discussing iran instead), we can look back and see if the speech appeared to predict it.

Posted by: J Thomas at January 29, 2005 06:35 PM

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