At a time in the nation's history when more than thirteen hundred Americans have lost their lives fighting a war in Iraq he initiated, President George W. Bush, speaking to the nation in his second inaugural address, chose not to face directly the one topic which is so closely tied to his chances for success in a second term, not to mention his historical legacy.
Mr. Bush spoke about "the force of human freedom" and the great objective of ending tyranny." He spoke of "A few Americans have accepted the hardest duties in this cause—in the quiet work of intelligence and diplomacy…the idealistic work of helping raise up free governments…" He did note "Some have shown their devotion to our country in deaths that have honored their whole lives…."
But the President did not mention Iraq by name. Neither did he refer to Afghanistan, another country that American troops invaded to overthrow the Taliban regime and where Americans lost lives. "Our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill, and would be dishonorable to abandon." What else besides Iraq and Afghanistan could he be referring to?
Lofty rhetoric in an inaugural address is fine and clearly has historical precedent. That does not mean, however, you can ignore the skunk in the room. And for all its pomp and ceremony this week's inauguration did have an unwanted distraction: the ongoing war in Iraq.
That simple fact was made all too plain earlier in the week when Condoleezza Rice, the president's nominee and a shoe-in to be the next Secretary of State, faced two days of squirm-in-your-seat questioning before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during her confirmation hearings.
Many Democrats and Republicans on the committee urged Rice to admit mistakes were made in what they saw as a faulty decision-making process during the run up to the Iraq war. The closest Rice came was acknowledging that among the many decisions the administration had to make, "some of them have been bad decisions, I'm sure."
This nation has many problems, foreign and domestic, which need to be addressed including some Mr. Bush has said he wants to take on, like Social Security and tax reform. But nothing needs fixing more than the mission in Iraq.
Upcoming elections scheduled for Jan. 30 hold a promise of positive movement toward establishing a democratic government there to replace the tyranny of Saddam Hussein's regime. However, this outcome is not at all assured and the insurgents who have caused so much death in their stubbornly fierce opposition to what they see as American occupation continue their daily attempt to derail the Bush administration's goal.
Mr. Bush said, "All the allies of the United States can know: we honor your friendship, we rely on your counsel and we depend on your help." There are plenty of foreign officials one can almost hear muttering about their counsel going unheeded before the Iraq war, leading many major allies to withhold the help Mr. Bush now says he depends on.
"We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people," Mr. Bush said in his speech. Is that a message intended for Russia's Putin, or China's Hu or Cuba's Castro?
Today is a new start for the Bush administration and sometime next week, when Rice becomes Secretary of State Rice, she will find a long line of foreign leaders eagerly waiting to see what the president really meant.