According to his most fervent supporters, George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural Address has already taken its place among the great speeches of modern American politics.  Whether history confirms that verdict remains to be seen.

For the present, it is not the quality of the oratory but the implications for U.S. policy that deserve attention.  On that score, the outlook is far from encouraging.  For embedded in the speech like an IED buried alongside an Iraqi highway is the following assertion: “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.”  At first glance, the sentiment could hardly appear more benign: Protective of their own freedoms, Americans will support freedom for others.  Who could find fault with that?  On closer examination, however, the perniciousness of this new Bush Doctrine becomes evident.

If President Bush intended, on January 20, merely to offer up frothy bromides suitable for a state occasion, we could disregard his conflation of American interests and values just as we ignore his claimed insights into the will of God.  But those closest to the President caution against doing so.  Mr. Bush, they emphasize, means what he says—albeit selectively.  The project that he has outlined is not of a moment; it is the work of generations.  In this context, the President’s melding of American interests and values takes on alarming connotations.  It becomes a prescription for permissiveness without responsibility.

This new Bush Doctrine builds on and broadens the already existing Bush Doctrine of preventive war.  In the realm of policy, it asserts unconditional freedom of action justified by the ostensible demands of freedom.  When the United States punishes, occupies, or destroys, she does so for reasons far removed from the sordid, self-interested purposes animating other nations.  Since, by definition, according to President Bush, America acts on behalf of liberty, such actions are necessarily above suspicion or reproach.  Those entertaining a contrary view, questioning whether American motives really differ all that much from those of great powers in ages past, are either cynics or soreheads.  As a consequence, U.S. officials can rightly disregard their criticism.

Take Iraq.  Charges that oil or hegemony figured in the administration’s decision to invade are beneath notice, according to the President’s defenders: From the outset, under the terms of the new Bush Doctrine, the aim was liberation, neither more nor less.  Evidence of colossal incompetence or misjudgment—for example, the nonexistence of the fearsome arsenal that had ostensibly made Saddam Hussein such a dire threat—gets shrugged off: Of what significance are a few honest errors, given the overall grandeur of the enterprise?  As to egregious misconduct such as that which occurred at Abu Ghraib, the new Bush Doctrine insists on seeing such regrettable lapses in context: The actions of a few in no way sully the high-minded efforts of the many.  In this way, Bush’s insistence on explaining America’s purpose as “ending tyranny in our world” frees him from accountability and confers on future U.S. policymakers limitless prerogatives reinforced by unassailable moral authority.

On the other hand, even as the new Bush Doctrine empowers, it imposes no specific obligations, at least none that are evident in the text of the President’s speech.  The melding of interests and beliefs permits but does not impel action.  President Bush and his successors will respond to the plight of the oppressed as they see fit.  Indeed, they may choose not to respond at all.  This is the new doctrine’s unstated corollary: In her capacity as agent of liberation, the United States picks and chooses.

Again, the Bush administration’s own policies show how this corollary plays out in practice.  The administration that describes Saddam’s removal as a moral imperative demonstrates considerably less urgency in dealing with the dictators making life miserable in Zimbabwe or Burma.  Whereas alleviating the suffering of the Iraqi people demanded direct military action, when it comes to the suffering of the Sudanese people, patient diplomacy suffices.  That American values should compel the United States to forego the benefits of trading with authoritarian China or of snuggling up to Pakistan’s military dictator is, of course, out of the question.

In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson included in his famous Fourteen Points the principle of “self-determination,” inviting ethnic groups to demand the reconfiguration of the international order to accommodate their unrequited aspirations.  At the time, Wilson’s secretary of state Robert Lansing described the principle as “simply loaded with dynamite” and certain to promote not freedom but chaos.  “What a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered!” Lansing wrote with considerable prescience.  “What misery it will cause!”

Lansing’s premonition bears recalling today.  If Americans heedlessly endorse George W. Bush’s radical proposal, the United States may once again inflict upon herself and others great misery.  Justifying anything while requiring nothing, removing constraints without imposing responsibilities, the new Bush Doctrine promises not the triumph of liberty around the world.  It will, instead, cement America’s growing image as a rogue superpower.