The Magazine

On Tyranny

From the January 31, 2005 issue: George W. Bush's Second Inaugural was a powerful and subtle speech. It will also prove to be historic.

Jan 31, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 19 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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A social science that cannot speak of tyranny with the same confidence with which medicine speaks, for example, of cancer, cannot understand social phenomena as what they are.

--Leo Strauss, On Tyranny



Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered. Yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict the more glorious the triumph.

--Thomas Paine, The Crisis


INFORMED BY STRAUSS and inspired by Paine, appealing to Lincoln and alluding to Truman, beginning with the Constitution and ending with the Declaration, with Biblical phrases echoing throughout--George W. Bush's Second Inaugural was a powerful and subtle speech.

It will also prove to be a historic speech. Less than three and a half years after 9/11, Bush's Second Inaugural moves American foreign policy beyond the war on terror to the larger struggle against tyranny. It grounds Bush's foreign policy--American foreign policy--in American history and American principles. If actions follow words and success greets his efforts, then President Bush will have ushered in a new era in American foreign policy.

That era will of course build on the efforts and achievements of his predecessors--especially Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. The invocation of Truman is clear. Here is Truman, in his address to a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947, announcing what came to be known as the Truman Doctrine: "I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." And here is Bush: "So 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."

Truman's basically defensive formulation of the doctrine of containment was appropriate at the beginning of the Cold War. Reagan was able, two generations later, to go further and to talk of transcending or overcoming communism. So we did, and Bush claims we are in a new and more hopeful era: "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one." Our previous victories allow a more expansive embrace of America's "ultimate goal."

Expansive does not mean reckless. Bush avoids John Kennedy's impressive but overly grand, "pay any price, bear any burden" formulation. Bush states that military force will of course be used to "protect this nation and its people against further attacks and emerging threats," and that "we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary." But he explains that the task of ending tyranny around the world is not "primarily the task of arms." The goal of ending tyranny will be pursued through many avenues, and is the "work of generations."

And Bush makes careful distinctions among the nations of the world. There are democratic allies, to whom he reaches out for help. There are "governments with long habits of control"--Russia, or China, or the Arab dictators--whose leaders Bush urges to start on the "journey of progress and justice, and America will walk at your side." But he also makes clear to these leaders that we will pressure them and hold them accountable for oppression, and that we will support dissidents and democratic reformers in their countries.

Then there are the "outlaw regimes." It is their rulers who call to mind Lincoln's statement: "Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it." So for those nations we intend to promote regime change--primarily through peaceful means, but not ruling out military force in the case of threats to us.

If the critics of the speech who have denounced it as simple-minded were to read it, they would find it sophisticated. They might even find it nuanced.

Still, sophisticated and nuanced as it is, it does proclaim the goal of ending tyranny. And just as Truman's speech shaped policy, so Bush's will. As he implicitly acknowledges, his presidency will be judged not by this speech but by his achievements. The speech, by laying out a clear and compelling path for U.S. foreign policy, will make substantial achievements easier. There will be vigorous debates over how to secure these achievements--debates over defense spending and diplomacy, over particular tactics and operational choices. We will at times differ with the president on some of these matters, as we have at times in the past. But on the fundamental American goal, President Bush has it right--profoundly right.

--William Kristol