President George Bush threw down the gauntlet to America and the world yesterday, serving notice that, despite the setbacks in Iraq, the United States would intensify its efforts to promote freedom and democracy around the globe.
In an inaugural address marked by soaring rhetoric and supreme self-confidence, Mr Bush began his second term by presenting this campaign for liberty as the only means of prevailing in the "war against terror" that dominated his first four years in office.
"The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world," the 43rd President declared.
"America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one." Mr Bush delivered his 20-minute speech from the traditional rostrum on the west steps of the Capitol on a cold, sunny morning, after being sworn in by a frail William Rehnquist. As the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court offered his congratulations, a 21-gun salute rang out across Washington's ceremonial Mall, packed with tens of thousands of spectators. To gain their seats, they had to undergo unprecedentedly strict security screening for the first inauguration since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. The event is an occasion which every four years gathers as no other the entire national leadership, from every branch of US government, into a single small outdoor space.
Even so, the chants of anti-war protesters - including some who carried coffin-shaped cardboard boxes to signify the deaths of US troops in Iraq - could be heard as the President spoke. A number of demonstrators were briefly detained before the ceremony.
Further protests were scheduled to take place as the traditional inaugural parade made its way down Pennsylvania Avenue in the afternoon, from the Capitol to the White House, where Mr Bush watched from a review stand, protected by bulletproof glass. The President will offer more details of his policy in his annual State of the Union address to Congress early next month. Yesterday, however, he set out his core philosophy, leaving no doubt of his ambition to go down, however controversially, as one of the great transformational presidents in American history.
The policy of the US was to "seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture", Mr Bush declared, "with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world". Democratic reformers who currently faced repression, jail or exile would be regarded by the US as future leaders of their countries.
But, he warned, the rulers of "outlaw regimes" should bear in mind the words of Abraham Lincoln, that those who denied freedom to others did not deserve it for themselves, and "could not long retain it".
The President named no names, but the countries he had in mind plainly included those listed by Condoleezza Rice, the incoming Secretary of State, as "outposts of tyranny" during her confirmation hearings this week.
Prominent among them are North Korea and particularly Iran, whose pursuit of nuclear weapons will constitute a crucial early challenge for the re-elected President.
All was couched in terms of bringing freedom to the oppressed - indeed the words "liberty" and "freedom" occurred no fewer than 42 times in a speech that dealt with America's own domestic problems almost as an afterthought.
The US, Mr Bush promised, would not impose its own version of democracy on others. The institutions that emerged in countries that became free "may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own". America's role was to "help others find their own voice ... and make their own way".
To allies who complained of arrogance and unilateralism on the part of the first Bush administration, and opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the President made a ritual nod in the direction of improving ties. "We honour your friendship, we rely on your counsel and we depend on your help," he said, giving a taste of the message he carries to his summit with European Union leaders in Brussels next month.
Mr Bush made clear that he would order military action if necessary to defend allies or stave off a perceived threat to US national security. But "this is not primarily the task of arms", he added, implying that the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were the exception not the rule.
However, all the President's confidence and ringing language could not conceal the fact that the US is politically and culturally divided as rarely in its modern history. Indeed, only at the end of his address did he urge unity at home - and in the most cursory fashion.
Hours before he spoke, a new poll in The New York Times gave the President a meagre 49 per cent approval rating, very low for an incumbent embarking on a second term, well short of the 60 per cent or more enjoyed by both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan at the same point in their presidencies.
These divisions, coupled with the conflicting feelings Mr Bush himself arouses, and the fierce rivalry between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, mean that Mr Bush's goals, at home and abroad, may be difficult to achieve. In foreign policy, barring a further traumatic terrorist attack, it will be hard to rally cross-party support for any new military campaign, in Iran or elsewhere. On the domestic front, the battle-lines have already been drawn on Mr Bush's unusually ambitious agenda, focused on the reform of the US tax and social security systems.
Mr Bush served notice yesterday of his intention to establish an "ownership society", embracing low taxes, a smaller role for government (even though public spending has grown rapidly under his stewardship) and the part-privatisation of social security, allowing individuals to run their own savings accounts.
The counterpart of freedom abroad was extended freedom at home, Mr Bush argued. "We will widen the ownership of homes and businesses, retirement savings and health insurance - preparing our people for the challenges of life in a free society, making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny."
Most divisive of all could be the nomination of new justices to the Supreme Court, whose make-up has not changed for nearly 11 years - a period unmatched since the 19th century. Epitomising the changes ahead was the sight yesterday of Mr Rehnquist, stooped and walking with the aid of two sticks as he administered the oath of office. The Chief Justice seems destined to retire within months at most.
His replacement could trigger a bitter battle that might upset Mr Bush's entire second-term legislative programme.
Yesterday, however, the emphasis, as in no other inaugural address since that of John F Kennedy in 1961, was on foreign affairs, in a speech that seemed directed less to Americans in their own country than to the foreign audience in the four corners of the world, many of whom were watching the proceedings intently.Reuse content