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Spreading Freedom in the World

January 26, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Back to Mark Shields and Rich Lowry.

Mark, how well did the president do in explaining the specifics or the practicalities of what he meant by advancing freedom and democracy?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, if someone had not heard the inaugural address last Thursday, they probably, it would have been a little difficult to understand what was going on here because the president made that statement last Thursday very strong, principled, many would say unequivocal endorsement of freedom and put the United States squarely on the side of those who hunger, thirst and fought for freedom in tyrannical regimes.

And basically, the predicate he laid down was the relations with every nation will be determined — the United States, the relationship with the United States — will be determined on how they treat their own people.

Boy, that was a radical and revolutionary sense, and since then, there has been a back and forth. The president’s own father came out, high spokesmen of the administration have said we’re not talking about specifics.

JIM LEHRER: What about what he said?

MARK SHIELDS: I thought today, I mean, he made it clear that we are not talking about non-negotiable demands in the specific; that it’s the work of generations is how he put it.

And it’s a bold new goal for the future. I mean, he still stood squarely on the side of freedom but it didn’t sound as urgently immediate to determine how a nation and the United States got along.

JIM LEHRER: Rich, how did you read it?

RICH LOWRY: Well, I think he certainly left himself open to the sort of questions suggesting he’s hypocritical in the application of his foreign policy through some of those lines in that inaugural address. Two points about it though just first.

One, almost every American president since Wilson has talked in such sweeping terms about the spread of liberty abroad and America’s responsibility to help spread it. You know, a lot of those lines in that speech you could have heard them… you could have heard Truman say similar things or JFK or Reagan or Bill Clinton.

The other thing, there are bits of nuance in the speech that have tended to get neglected. Mark picked up on a couple of them. You know, Bush said this is the work of generations. This obviously is not going to happen in one presidential term.

But there were lines in that speech that were too unmodulated to withstand a close reading. Mark picked up on one, you know, that the success in our relations depends on how you treat your people. No, not quite true.

There’s another one in there about how our vital interests and our deepest ideals are now one. Well, maybe in an abstract sense but when it comes to practical day-to-day policy, no, they aren’t one.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think he cleared that up today, Rich?

RICH LOWRY: I think he took steps towards doing it. But the fact is he said things in that inaugural address that aren’t quite sustainable. Our vital interests and our deepest ideals are not one or we wouldn’t have military bases in Central Asia in and these terrible little dictatorships without saying word boo about how they treat their own people. We wouldn’t be allies with Saudi Arabia.

We wouldn’t be propping up President Musharraf because our vital interest in Pakistan, for instance, is just that he roll up as many militants and capture and kill as many of them as he can and his respect or lack thereof for democratic norms is something we may care about eventually but not right now. So I think there are aspects of the inaugural that left President Bush open to these sort of questions he got today.

JIM LEHRER: And how did he answer? What kind of grade – I mean, how do you think he responded to those questions today?

RICH LOWRY: Pretty well. Look, the answer basically is the speech represented an aspiration, and, yes, it’s going to take a long time. Yes, it’s going to be complicated getting there, but I’m slowly and surely going to do the things I can in the here and now to try to move the ball down the field.

JIM LEHRER: So, Mark, a slight editing by the president today or more than that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, I think after the inaugural speech, I think the president could have been legitimately asked, okay, are we going to reopen our trade agreements with China — I mean, because it was certainly a ringing endorsement, as Rich put it, of the highest ideals and human rights stands at the center of it.

Will we tolerate that? That wasn’t answered today. The president has said our country is its best when we are guided by our ideals. Nobody quarrels with that. But the fact that we’ve had free elections, Jim, in places like Poland and East Germany and Hungary and the Czech Republic and Bulgaria and Romania, you know, when there weren’t — but it didn’t involve invasion and an occupation by the United States.

I mean, in other words, I don’t think the argument is at any point over the ends. It’s over the means.

JIM LEHRER: All rights.