Jewish World Review Jan. 21, 2005/ 11 Shevat, 5765

Wesley Pruden

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No nation building, but a world awaits | Four years ago George W. Bush was bubbling with skepticism, if not barely concealed contempt, for the notion of "nation building." Yesterday he promised to rebuild the world.

"There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment and expose the pretensions of tyrants and reward the hopes of the decent and the tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom," he said in a shorter than usual second inaugural address, his breath occasionally making little puffs of steam in the freezing noonday air.

And then the not so fine print: "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 the world." Such a noble task, he said, is "the calling of our time."

The words inspired, and it's difficult for any man who loves liberty to argue with the proposition that spreading the ideals of freedom (which he mentioned 27 times) and liberty (15 times) is a good thing.

It's not difficult to quarrel with his assertion that "the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." We've survived throughout our history while millions of miserable folk in other lands lived under the bloody boots of thugs, and continue to do so today. There's no quarrel with his assertion that "from the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights and dignity and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of heaven and earth."

All true. It's not the why and wherefore, but the therefore. Where the president thinks this takes us, and how we get to the happy day when no man walks the earth with another's yoke around his neck, is not so clear. Where do we start? With Saudi Arabia? Despite its wealth and strategic importance to the West, the oily kingdom fits the president's description of a place where intolerance is enthroned and women live in the "humiliation and servitude" we cannot allow. With China? Hundreds of millions of Chinese peasants are more subjects than citizens, and where to step out of line, even for unauthorized calisthenics (as the Falun Gong could tell you), invites beatings, prison, and worse. With North Korea? A goofy tinpot with a seriously bad haircut threatens nuclear destruction of his neighbors and will soon have the nuclear goods, if he does not have them already, to back up his bellicosity. This doesn't even get us to Africa and its murderous dictatorships, where, to borrow from Kipling, "the best is like the worst."

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The trap in the grandeur of George W.'s vision is a snare set by the president himself. He persuaded the nation to go to war in Iraq despite a deeply felt aversion to foreign wars. Americans believed that Saddam Hussein, an ambitious tyrant, was armed with weapons of mass destruction. Even after events proved that the president was misled by decorated incompetents at the CIA, the nation remains steadfast in its belief that the war in Iraq was the right thing to do, and must be finished aright. But when the president asks the nation to go to war again, whether in Iran or North Korea when authentic necessity may well require military intervention, the question of whether it's necessity or a high-minded desire to spread freedom, will return to haunt him.

Iraq was the unspoken word yesterday; no need to provoke half-mad critics on a day of national celebration. But to compare the present difficulties in Iraq to the war in Vietnam a generation ago is absurd. Car bombers, assassins who ambush children from the shadows, and men who behead women would not have lasted a day in the disciplined battalions of Viet Cong guerrillas or North Vietnamese regulars.

All inaugurations are a day for eloquent expression of big thoughts about large ideals. Nevertheless, the president was his most reassuring when he acknowledged that, soaring rhetoric about setting the world free aside, "we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary."

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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