Column 2005-01-22, "Ideals And Reality"
David Brooks's column, as printed in the Times:
If you want to understand America, I hope you were in Washington on Thursday. I hope you heard the high ideals of President Bush's inaugural address, and also saw the stretch Hummer limos heading to the balls in the evening.
I hope you heard the president talk about freedom as ''the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul,'' and also saw the drunken, loud and privileged twentysomethings carrying each other piggyback down K Street after midnight.
What you saw in Washington that day is what you see in America so often -- this weird intermingling of high ideals with gross materialism, the lofty and the vulgar cheek to cheek.
The people who detest America take a look at this odd conjunction and assume the materialistic America is the real America; the ideals are a sham. The real America, they insist, is the money-grubbing, resource-wasting, TV-drenched, unreflective bimbo of the earth. The high-toned language, the anti-Americans say, is just a cover for the quest for oil, or the desire for riches, dominion and war.
But of course they've got it exactly backward. It's the ideals that are real.
Two years from now, no one will remember the spending or the ostrich-skin cowboy boots. But Bush's speech, which is being derided for its vagueness and its supposed detachment from the concrete realities, will still be practical and present in the world, yielding consequences every day.
With that speech, President Bush's foreign policy doctrine transcended the war on terror. He laid down a standard against which everything he and his successors do will be judged.
When he goes to China, he will not be able to ignore the political prisoners there, because he called them the future leaders of their free nation. When he meets with dictators around the world, as in this flawed world he must, he will not be able to have warm relations with them, because he said no relations with tyrants can be successful.
His words will be thrown back at him and at future presidents. American diplomats have been sent a strong message. Political reform will always be on the table. Liberation and democratization will be the ghost present at every international meeting. Vladimir Putin will never again be the possessor of that fine soul; he will be the menace to democracy and rule of law.
Because of that speech, it will be harder for the U.S. government to do what we did to Latin Americans for so many decades -- support strongmen to rule over them because they happened to be our strongmen. It will be harder to frustrate the dreams of a captive people, the way in the early 1990's we tried to frustrate the independence dreams of Ukraine.
It will be harder for future diplomats to sit on couches flattering dictators, the way we used to flatter Hafez al-Assad of Syria decade after decade. From now on, the borders established by any peace process will be less important than the character of the regimes in that process.
The speech does not command us to go off on a global crusade, instantaneously pushing democracy on one and all. The president vowed merely to ''encourage reform.'' He insisted that people must choose freedom for themselves. The pace of progress will vary from nation to nation.
The speech does not mean that Bush will always live up to his standard. But the bias in American foreign policy will shift away from stability and toward reform. It will be harder to cozy up to Arab dictators because they can supposedly help us in the war on terror. It will be clearer that those dictators are not the antidotes to terror; they're the disease.
Bush's inaugural ideals will also be real in the way they motivate our troops in Iraq. Military Times magazine asked its readers if they think the war in Iraq is worth it. Over 60 percent -- and two-thirds of Iraq combat vets -- said it was. While many back home have lost faith, our troops fight because their efforts are aligned with the core ideals of this country, articulated by Jefferson, Walt Whitman, Lincoln, F.D.R., Truman, J.F.K., Reagan and now Bush.
Americans are, as George Santayana observed, ''idealists working on matter.' ' On Thursday in Washington, the ideal and the material were on ample display. And we're reminded once again that this country has grown rich, powerful and effective not because its citizens are smarter or better, but because the ideals bequeathed by the founders are practical and true.