An Empty Exercise in Deceit
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President Bush has not lost his flair for irony.
Just as the president hit the point in his second inaugural address where he declared to the dissidents of the world that "when you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you," authorities were removing peaceful protesters from the regal one's line of sight.
It was a similar juxtaposition of lofty rhetoric and less-than-lofty deeds that made the first term of the Bush presidency so unsettling to thinking people in the U.S. and abroad. And nothing in Thursday's inaugural ceremony suggested that the second term would be any better. Even as American forces remained mired in the quagmire of Iraq into which they were led by the Bush administration's deliberate misreading of intelligence information, the president offered no indication whatsoever that he had learned from the mistakes and misdeeds of his first term.
Bush's lack of self-reflection belied the occasionally humble notes struck during his 20-minute address. And it called into question the speech's bold assertions:
* "Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen," said Bush, who declared, "America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling." Sounds great. But should anyone read that as an abandonment of the doctrine of preemptive war that served as an excuse for the unilateral invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq during the president's first term? The president provided no such indication, and his record recommends the most extreme skepticism.
* "We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny," Bush said as he specifically addressed dissidents around the world, urging them to resist oppression and issuing that ringing promise that, "When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you." Does this mean that when challenges are mounted to the oppressive regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt or elsewhere, the United States will take the side of the rebels? Can we expect the United States to impose trade sanctions on China because of that country's brutal occupation of Tibet, its jailing of dissidents and its smashing of movements for trade unionism, religious freedom and democracy? If the leaders of Russia continue to dismantle that country's freedoms, will that put them on the wrong side of the United States? The sad truth is that Bush's Republican allies continue to ridicule former President Jimmy Carter for attempting to use economic sanctions and other diplomatic tools to oppose tyranny.
* "America's influence is considerable, and we will use it competently in freedom's cause," the president announced. That's a reasonable sentiment. But should anyone take this as an acknowledgment that poor planning, self-delusion and isolation from the world made the Iraq occupation the mess that it is? Or that the United States will now set a different course? Read Sy Hersh's latest report in the New Yorker on maneuvering within the administration to launch a guaranteed-to-be-disastrous war with Iran and you will have a hard time believing that competence and common sense have won out.
* Speaking of what he called the "essential work at home," the president said he was determined to "make our society more just and equal." But how does he reconcile that pledge with the growing gap between rich and poor, assaults on affirmative action programs that allow victims of past discrimination to get an equal footing in society, and scheming to dismantle the safety-net protections of Social Security, Medicare and other programs?
* The president affirmed his faith in "the durable wisdom of the Constitution." That's a fine choice of words. But does that mean that a second Bush administration will begin dismantling the Patriot Act and other policies that undermine constitutional protections? Does that mean that he will refuse to nominate anyone to the federal bench who does not respect the Constitution's well-defined right of privacy – particularly as it relates to a woman's right to choose?
It would be appealing to take George W. Bush at his word. But, considering his track record, that is not an option. In fact, if history is a guide, the one guarantee we have is that Bush's words will not match his deeds. And his inaugural address will be remembered as nothing more than an empty exercise in deceit.
John Nichols is The Nation 's Washington correspondent.