WASHINGTON — No one was more surprised by President Bush's sweeping view of America's mission in the world in his inaugural address on Thursday than some of the conservatives who supported him precisely because of his Reaganesque vision. During the campaign, they cheered wildly when Bush talked about "the transformational power of liberty."
But on Thursday he went far beyond campaign fare, leaving Teddy Roosevelt's big stick and Woodrow Wilson's idealism in the dust as he said, "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."
What he didn't say, in a speech that used the word freedom 27 times in about 20 minutes, was exactly when, where and how he would intervene on liberty's behalf. Exceptionally vague and without a time frame, the standards Bush set Thursday allow him enormous running room. The White House declined the next day to put specific countries into the speech's specific categories, saying only that Bush was laying down broad goals and hoping other nations would conduct some self-examination.
It was too much for some of Bush's supporters: Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan speechwriter who worked for the Bush campaign, called it "mission inebriation."
Indeed, any tyrant left untoppled in the next four years can be described as what the president called the "work of generations."
Meanwhile, the goal of ending tyranny is available as a retroactive rationale for the war in Iraq, where Americans were originally told that weapons stocks were the primary justification for war. It can also be the predicate, should Bush need one, for action in Iran or North Korea, where even many critics of the Iraq war acknowledge there is a real nuclear threat.
So what are the real policy implications? To get a sense of them, it helped to listen to two other inaugural-week broadcasts: Vice President Dick Cheney bantering with Don Imus, the MSNBC shock-jock, and Condoleezza Rice sparring with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when they questioned her as Bush's nominee for secretary of state.
Cheney made it clear that the administration isn't joking about Iran's nuclear program. "You look around at potential trouble spots, Iran is right at the top of the list," he said. He insisted that the administration was trying to talk Iran out of proceeding with its nuclear program (which Iran's leaders insist is solely for the production of electricity) because "the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the mess afterwards."
Iran also showed up at the top of a list that Rice gave the senators naming six "outposts of tyranny"; the other five were North Korea, Cuba, Myanmar, Zimbabwe and Belarus.
It is a remarkable list, even if Rice, in a close colleague's words, "was trying to be illustrative, not comprehensive." It touches four continents, but excludes Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and America's nuclear-armed sometime ally, Pakistan.
The administration is deadly serious about North Korea, trying diplomacy for now, yet clearly preparing for the next step if it fails. But what of the others?
Cuba is a hardy perennial that Bush has no intention of toppling. His strategy, like that of every president for four decades, seems to be to wait for the actuarial tables to catch up with Fidel Castro. But after Castro's demise, Bush could easily dust off one phrase from his speech to shape Cubans' future course: "When we stand for liberty, we will stand with you."
Zimbabwe and Myanmar (which Rice referred to by its former name, Burma) are human rights nightmares, but no one at the White House pretends that either is central to America's interests or a breeding ground for al-Qaida. Why put them on the list? "Diversity is important," said one of Bush's aides, "even among rogues."
Belarus is no party, either, but it seems to be included mostly as a poke to Vladimir Putin, who rules its neighbor, Russia, with an increasingly heavy hand. It seemed to be a way for Rice to remind Putin not to travel too far in that direction. But she couldn't say it directly: She will need Putin on a host of other fronts.
She will also need some other nations that are not on her list but seem to fall into another of Bush's categories: Countries that are sometimes with us, sometimes against us but frequently at odds with their own populace.
China, for example: It has long been the polar opposite of Cuba — too big, strategically important, too far away — and now too deeply involved in financing America's trade and budget deficits — to mess with.
And the Saudis? William F. Buckley, writing in National Review, tweaked Bush for good intentions that were ill-explained: "Here is a country embedded in oppression. Does President Bush really intend to make a point of this? Where? At the U.N.? At the Organization of African Unity? Will we refuse to buy Saudi oil?"
Not likely. With those nations, Bush seemed to be pleading for their leaders to give him just enough evidence of slow liberalization so that he could declare them to be recovering autocrats, who are coming to see the light.
That is how the administration refers these days to Col. Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan leader. A year ago he decided to give up his nuclear weapons program, and ever since then, he has been showered with a lifting of embargoes of all kinds. Rice and her successor as national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, often talk of the Libyan model, and Bush seemed to have that in mind when he said: "The leaders of governments with long habits of control need to know: To serve your people, you must learn to trust them. Start on this journey of progress and justice, and America will walk at your side."
Asked about that, the senior administration official who was providing the annotated version of the speech said, "Listen to that word 'start.' " His implication was that in Bush's mind, countries do not have to meet a fixed standard before they reap the benefits of better relations with Washington.
Unless, of course, they are Iran or North Korea.