WASHINGTON — Say what you will about President Bush's second inaugural speech, as rhetoric goes, it was a fine effort. The president is for freedom and wants to make the world freer. He doesn't want to tell the world what to do with freedom - that's up to the newly freed folks, as he might say. He just wants more of it. It's hard to argue with that, right?
OK, there were a few points to quibble on.
There were the obvious contradictions between the president's stated goals and the reality of his first term. Freedom, after all, isn't exactly on the march in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan or China or even Russia for that matter, and the US seems to be enjoying relatively cordial relations with those countries on economic and/or political terms.
There was the weird incongruity of talking about "oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right," as the president said, in a city where the parade route was essentially walled off from the rest of the city. No ticket? Find a TV.
But those specific issues are ultimately minor points to the Bush administration, which has already happily explained them away. The walls in downtown D.C. were only about safety, of course - not the thousands of protesters who got shut out. And US dealings with nations that sometimes do unsavory things is really just our way of working with them to make them freer - not our way of getting our way.
Fair enough. It's his inaugural and he deserves to be cut some slack in the spirit of bipartisanship. Beyond the soaring eloquence, however, the problem with the address was the point of the speech itself. "The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world," the president said. "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one."
Would that it were so.
In his speech last Thursday, the president played on a notion we all know well. The sentiments he expressed are at the core of the professed American belief system. They are part of what we learn in elementary school.
We don't seek to extend our power, we want only to live our free lives and, we hope, spread ideas beyond our borders so that others, too, can live freely. This is what makes us different, we say. But that myth doesn't jibe well with reality.
The United States of America is, simply put, the most powerful economic, cultural, and military force on the planet at this particular moment in history. The chief mission of our foreign policy is, like all nation's that have occupied that coveted place, ultimately, to make sure that we hold onto that power as long as possible. In perpetuity, if that's an option.
That isn't good or bad, it simply is. Would you really want an administration in Washington that was undermining American power?
Mr. Bush's inaugural argument is that pushing for freedom across the world is the same as working to extend American power, or at least secure it. Freedom, the theory goes, will lead the peoples of the world to join with us.
Really? Can we honestly say that uniformly? There are any number of nations where freedom, while it may be in the interest of the people living there, is most probably not in the American interest. First and foremost among these nations may prove to be Iraq.
Elections and freedom are a good thing for the Iraqis. No one would want to live under a brutal dictator like Saddam Hussein. But what if those elections mean the creation of a fundamentalist Islamic state? What if those freedoms include the freedom to dissolve the country, to wage civil war, to create three independent states?
Is America really best served by those things and the consequences they could bring?
This is not a uniquely American problem. No major power in history has had as the organizing principle of its foreign policy making the world freer. Rome and England wanted empires. France wanted, well, to make the world more French - for the world's own good, of course.
It may be true that the US doesn't seek an empire, or at least not a traditional empire. But as a nation, we do pursue policies that aren't always about thrusting freedom forward. It is the curse of power and it will continue to be, regardless of how many altruism-soaked speeches we hear.
So yes, it was a good speech, scoring high on all things such addresses are supposed to celebrate - lofty ideals, hope, optimism. It just wasn't strong on that other point: reality.
• Dante Chinni is a senior associate with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. He writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.