WASHINGTON - President Bush launched his second term, as anticipated, with lofty words. What was surprising was the subject his often-graceful language addressed.
Brushing lightly past his ambitious domestic agenda, he unexpectedly devoted his second inaugural address largely to the question of America's role in the world. His outward-looking remarks included a potentially far-reaching redefinition of the country's interests.
Declaring it "the urgent requirement of our nation's security," Bush said that America will use its "considerable" power to align itself with forces of freedom against dictators and oppressive governments around the world. He assured "all who live in tyranny and hopelessness" that "the United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors."
Not since Jimmy Carter, more than a quarter-century ago, has a president elevated human rights to the forefront of his administration's diplomacy.
Depending on how far Bush decides to take it, his policy could be a corollary to his muscular doctrine of pre-emption, which became the justification for invading Iraq. Think Carter's human-rights policy on steroids.
Carter wanted to isolate human-rights violators. Bush, if he takes his idea to its logical conclusion, could mount efforts to undermine repressive regimes around the world.
Spreading democracy and ultimately "ending tyranny in our world" is not "primarily" a military mission, he said, "though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary."
For rulers of repressive nations, he had a blunt warning.
Successful relations with the United States will "require" them to give "decent treatment" to their people. He reinforced his message with Abraham Lincoln's admonition that "those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it."
Bush also directly addressed America's allies. Asserting that "division among free nations is a primary goal of freedom's enemies," he made an overture as part of what is expected to be a second-term attempt to heal the breach with estranged allies in Europe and elsewhere.
"We rely on your counsel," he told them, "and we depend on your help."
The international thrust at the outset of his new term was perhaps the most striking evidence of the enormous challenges Bush faces today, most of which were far from his mind when he came to office in 2001.
He alluded to that time yesterday as a period of "quiet ... repose," a post-Cold War "sabbatical" for America.
"Then there came a day of fire," he said, speaking of Sept. 11, 2001.
A deeper understanding
Bush's elegant 21-minute speech may have reflected the overarching philosophy of his administration more than the personality of the man who delivered it. But he exhibited a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the forces that have transformed the country than he has in the past.
"The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands," he said. "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one."
The "deepest source" of the terrorist threat facing America, he explained, is the simmering resentment of millions of people, in "whole regions of the world," who have been forced to live under repressive governments. That idea was notably absent from the pivotal speech of his first term, to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20, 2001. Instead, he memorably said that night that al-Qaida had attacked America because "they hate our freedoms."
Bush's second inaugural address "clearly reflects his growth, as well as the influence of four years in that home that he lives in," said Ken Khachigian, a Reagan White House speechwriter and adviser who likened yesterday's speech to the Federalist papers.
"It was really written as a defining premise of America," he said, a "very powerful and very ambitious" essay that "puts American into a historical context in the post-Communist era."
It was "more Philadelphia, 1776, than Crawford, 2005," and "almost reads better than it was delivered," he said. "The words are almost meant for the eye more than the ear."
Democratic speechwriter Kenneth Baer found a streak of Woodrow Wilson's idealism in Bush's text, calling it "a good speech" that "met the occasion."
"It was, in some ways, a radical speech, radical in its Wilsonianism," he said. "And if you remember how Wilsonianism turned out, history showed that Wilsonianism failed."
Like other second-term presidents, freed from winning re-election and increasingly focused on their place in history, Bush spoke of how others, centuries from now, would view this era. He said that advancing the ideals of freedom and self-government was "the calling of our time."
What isn't clear is how Bush plans to implement his grand ideas and exactly where he will take them. Other recent presidents have given lip service to the need to open up repressive regimes and then largely ignored that in dealing with a wide range of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, from Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt to Communist China.
Abraham D. Sofaer, a senior State Department official in the Reagan administration, said he was troubled by the practical implications of Bush's words.
"Reality is far more difficult than these ideas would suggest, as we are experiencing ourselves in Iraq," said Sofaer, who supported the invasion. "You can't let your rhetoric and your idealism blur the reality that ... some battles are not worth fighting."
Sofaer, a scholar at Stanford's Hoover Institution, said he hoped that Bush's "rhetoric does not lead him to commit the United States to ... fights that are going to be too costly and might undermine the overall war we're fighting" against terrorism.
Four years ago, standing in the same spot, Bush took office with repeated pledges to unify a nation so deeply divided that, as he said then, "it seems we share a continent but not a country." He has been largely unsuccessful in that endeavor, leaving himself the task of leading a nation of almost 300 million that is as sharply polarized as ever.
Yesterday, he returned briefly to the unity theme, near the close of his speech. He recalled the period, immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, "when freedom came under attack, and our response came like a single hand over a single heart."
The divisions in the country "must be healed to move forward in great purposes," he said. "And I will strive in good faith to heal them."