If President Bush achieved nothing else in his Inaugural Address, he at least provided fodder for media pundits to chew on for a solid week or more. This is an unusual accomplishment, even for inaugural addresses, most of which are endured and then ignored by those whose job it is to listen to them and talk and write about them.
It was predictable that Republicans would like the speech. What was notable about responses to it was what the neoconservatives had to say. Say is perhaps not quite the word. Their reaction was less one of verbal articulation than the kind of gushing one hears in tidal waves and mud slides. The neocons liked the speech. They should have, since they essentially wrote it.
The neoconservative influence on the Inaugural Address is obvious from its text. The President’s unqualified endorsement of pop utopianism, the Wilsonian principle that “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,” is exactly what neocons have been peddling for decades.
It reflects their breezy assumption that democracy and liberty are virtual synonyms (an idea largely foreign to both classical political theory and the Founding Fathers, who thought they had established a republic that mixed forms of government, not a pure democracy). It accepts without question the assumption that “freedom” as the West understands it is a universal value for the whole world and can be institutionalized only in Western political forms.
And from those flawed premises, it draws the non sequitur that American foreign policy should therefore export freedom (meaning “democracy”) everywhere. The premises, the flawed logic, and the reckless conclusion are all neoconservative commonplaces.
The speech not only reflects neoconservative ideology, however; it was, in large part, the work of neoconservative hands. The Washington Post noted that such neocons as Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and “a leading neoconservative thinker,” advised the President and his speechwriters on the address. So did neoconservatives Victor Davis Hanson and Charles Krauthammer, and so did Israeli politician (and neoconservative) Nathan Sharansky, whom the President invited to the White House in November to talk about his own book on exporting democracy.
Predictably, the neocons not only helped write the speech but managed the gushing about it afterward. “It was a rare inaugural speech that will go down as a historic speech, I believe,” Kristol swooned to the Post. “His importance as a world leader will turn out to be far larger than the sort of tactical issues that are widely debated and for which he is sometimes reviled,” neoconservative kingpin Richard Perle solemnly pronounced a few days later. “Put this in a historic perspective: He’s already created profound change. All around the Middle East, they’re talking about the issue of democracy. They’re talking about his agenda. It’s an extraordinary thing.”
The neocon domination of the Inaugural Address reflects their own continuing domination of the administration itself, now entrenched even more powerfully than in Bush’s first term. Just as the first term brought us war in Iraq, so we can expect the second to bring us wars, well, just about wherever the neocons want to wage them. By the logic of Bush’s speech, that could be almost anywhere that doesn’t conform to what he and they want.
As yet another neocon gusher, Jonah Goldberg, affirmed, Bush’s foreign policy is “truly revolutionary.” In that description, he concurs with liberal Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who writes that the President’s “goals are now the antithesis of conservatism. They are revolutionary.” That’s OK, you see, because “the United States is a revolutionary power,” and Bush has now “found his way back to the universalist principles that have usually shaped American foreign policy, regardless of the nature of the threat.”
What is interesting here is not the flawed analysis of what has “usually shaped” our foreign policy but the convergence of neoconservatism and liberalism. It’s interesting because, for a generation, it has been the constant theme of Old Right criticism of neoconservatism that it is largely just liberal wine in a new skin.
Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson were liberals, and all of them remain neoconservative heroes. Their foreign policies, and the words with which they defended and explained them, were barely distinguishable from what Bush wrapped himself and the nation in at his inauguration. The President accomplished something else in his address: He confirmed once and for all that the neoconservatism to which he has delivered his administration and the country is fundamentally indistinguishable from the liberalism many conservatives imagine he has renounced and defeated.
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