The Fading Freedom Agenda

The decidedly measured rhetoric used by President Bush in the State of the Union address on Monday shows that his democratic zeal has been tempered by time and experience.

President George W. Bush again described the war on terrorism as the "defining ideological struggle of the twenty-first century" in his State of the Union address. But his rhetoric made clear that the president's once-trumpeted "war of ideas" had taken a firm back seat to a "war of realities" in which the United States should have engaged long ago.

Most of the president's foreign-policy remarks focused by necessity on the war in Iraq, as Mr. Bush sought to claim credit for the success of the surge and-in deference to American domestic realities-to highlight the withdrawal of some U.S. forces from the country. And in a narrow sense, the surge has been the right strategy. The problem is that despite the president's admiration for former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the Bush administration has inadvertently proven one of Churchill's maxims about the United States-"you can always count on Americans to do the right thing-after they've tried everything else." Why from the beginning the administration didn't use more troops, and even more important, today's strategy of stabilizing the country and getting out, is the real question.

Also quite interesting was the fact that Mr. Bush talked not about promoting freedom but promoting "the hope of freedom" and leaving behind not a democratic Middle East, but "a more hopeful region." It's a far cry from the soaring rhetoric of his second inaugural address. (Which is not, by the way, as easy to find on the White House website as it has been in the past.) The ambitious post-WMD justification for the war in Iraq-freeing the Middle East-has been thoroughly deflated.

This new balance between promoting democracy and advancing America's traditional security interests was especially striking in the president's comments on Iran. After criticizing Tehran's support for Iraqi militias and Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists, Mr. Bush said

Our message to the people of Iran is clear: We have no quarrel with you. We respect your traditions and your history. We look forward to the day when you have your freedom. Our message to the leaders of Iran is also clear: Verifiably suspend your nuclear enrichment, so negotiations can begin. And to rejoin the community of nations, come clean about your nuclear intentions and past actions, stop your oppression at home, cease your support for terror abroad. But above all, know this: America will confront those who threaten our troops. We will stand by our allies, and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf.

In 2005, he "stood with" the people of Iran, but today he "has no quarrel with" them, respects them and "[looks] forward" to their freedom.

Many Americans, of course, will pay little attention to the nuances in the president's speech. But as voters think about their choices in 2008, they would do well to reflect on the lessons of the last seven years, not only in foreign-policy terms, but in evaluating what kind of leader America needs. Many criticized Mr. Bush for his lack of foreign-policy experience, and some candidates have touted their own experience as key strengths. While there is no doubt that experience can be useful, it provides no guarantees-as demonstrated by the president's experienced foreign-policy and defense team, including Vice President Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others. From this perspective, the ability to learn quickly, to incorporate new information, to change one's perspectives and to react to the rapidly shifting realities of our twenty-first century world, may be more important. One thing is certain: America cannot afford its next president spending seven years learning important lessons about our foreign policy.


Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Nixon Center and associate publisher of The National Interest.