An Inauguration Free From Specifics

President Bush opened his second term with an "assertively abstract" speech in which he promised to promote liberty and democracy "in every nation and culture" on earth. The speech was "harnessed to almost no specifics" – the words "freedom," "free" and "liberty" appeared 49 times, but Bush "did not mention Iraq, Iran, North Korea – or indeed any country, friend or foe." The word "terrorism" did not appear, nor was there mention of al Qaeda. And the war in Iraq, which has claimed the lives of 1,360 American troops and wounded upwards of 10,000, went unacknowledged.

While Bush mentioned the abstract notion of "freedom" 25 times in a 17-minute speech (yes, that works out to 1.5 times a minute), the president remained strangely silent on the most important issue facing the country today, the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq. Three other presidents gave their second inaugural addresses during times of war: James Madison, Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon. All three focused heavily on the challenges faced by the country in a time of war. Bush, however, never let the word Iraq pass his lips. And "while the war's costs mount, the president pointedly did not ask the country for sacrifices to win the victory he promises."

President Bush's rhetoric on promoting democracy abroad was undermined by several of his first-term actions. The Bush administration continued to cultivate a close relationship with monarchic Saudi Arabia, for instance, despite that country being ranked by the non-partisan Freedom House as "one of the world's least free nations." In Russia, President Bush stood idly by as his "straightforward and trustworthy" friend Vladimir Putin eliminated political competition, canceled checks and balances, and muzzled the press. According to The Washington Post, "even Putin's defenders have reservations about calling Russia a democracy anymore." And the administration has been protective of Pakistan, "even though President Pervez Musharraf, a general who seized power in 1999, reneged last year on his promise to give up his role as chief of the armed forces."

Bush's vow to spread freedom also raises several second-term challenges: Will he "go to the mat for instance, to bring democracy to China? To Iran? ... How hard will he press for women's rights and free elections in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt?" The challenge may be especially difficult in autocratic China, where U.S. investments are valued at more than $35 billion. The State Department cites "Well-documented abuses of human rights in violation of internationally recognized norms." Human Rights Watch accuses China of stifling free discourse, rigging elections in Hong Kong and repressing freedom in Tibet.

The last third of Bush's speech was focused on his domestic priorities for his upcoming term. He brushed off his rhetoric on the so-called "ownership society," saying he wanted to "widen the ownership of homes and businesses, retirement savings and health insurance, preparing our people for the challenges of life in a free society." But over the past four years, Bush has systematically shifted retirement and health care costs and risks onto individuals while making sure financial services and health care providers get billions in new fees and services. His plan for privatizing Social Security, for example, leaves the elderly at the mercy of fickle financial markets, while private financial management firms will collect an estimated $940 billion windfall in new fees. He has advocated sharp cuts in the budget for Housing and Urban Development (which helps the poor find housing); today, HUD is poised to lose a quarter of its $31 billion budget.

In his speech, Bush set forth the idea that the United States would become a global leader for freedom and democracy. One big problem: The world may no longer trust him. Over the past four years, President Bush and his administration have systematically squandered international support and undercut America's position as global leader. A new public opinion poll conducted by BBC World Service shows that of 22,000 surveyed in Africa, Latin America, North America, Asia, and Europe, "58 percent of those surveyed said they believed U.S. President George Bush will have a 'negative impact on [global] peace and security.'" Doug Miller, president of the polling firm GlobeScan, which helped conduct the survey, called the results troubling: "Our research makes very clear that the re-election of President Bush has further isolated America from the world," he said. "It also supports the view of some Americans that unless his administration changes its approach to world affairs in its second term, it will continue to erode America's good name, and hence its ability to effectively influence world affairs."

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