November 18, 2003 | National Review Online

Bush Plays the Palace

President Bush's “Three Pillars” speech at Whitehall Palace today may have been the most significant of his presidency. What's more, he was almost as eloquent as Tony Blair. It must be something in the British water — or tea.

Politically, his message was bad news for the neo-isolationist Right and the post-humanitarian Left. Bush made it clear that he believes freedom is the predicate for peace. He said plainly that he will not shy away from using “force when necessary in the defense of freedom.” He added:

[W]e cannot turn a blind eye to oppression just because the oppression is not in our own backyard. No longer should we think tyranny is benign because it is temporarily convenient. Tyranny is never benign to its victims, and our great democracies should oppose tyranny wherever it is found.

He reiterated the core insight of his administration, an idea that has yet to sink in with many people in Europe – and with many in the U.S. as well:

The greatest threat of our age is nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons in the hands of terrorists, and the dictators who aid them. The evil is in plain sight. The danger only increases with denial. Great responsibilities fall once again to the great democracies. We will face these threats with open eyes, and we will defeat them.

Bush paid homage to two predecessors: Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat who, like Bush, believed that democracies have a right to defend themselves and an obligation to defend one another. He echoed President Reagan who stood up to the intellectual elites who insisted on a moral equivalence between the free world and the Soviet Empire.

When he alluded to Europe's past mistakes – Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler at Munich, which led to the Blitz and Auschwitz – Bush also was paying tribute to Winston Churchill and, in a way, to Tony Blair. He spoke out specifically against the stunning reemergence of European antisemitism.

He called for what one might term a muscular multilateralism. He said that a U.N. that ignores oppression and aggression, that issues resolutions but shows no resolve, cannot play a serious role in world affairs.

There were no apologies in this speech. And Bush's message of “no retreat” in Iraq could not have been more forcefully stated. Note, in particular, these passages:

Whatever has come before, we now have only two options: to keep our word, or to break our word. The failure of democracy in Iraq would throw its people back into misery and turn that country over to terrorists who wish to destroy us. …We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq and pay a bitter cost of casualties, and liberate 25 million people, only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins.

Let's hope that folks at State, the Pentagon, the CIA, and Congress were listening – and that they remember who signs their paychecks.

The Democratic presidential candidates also should be asked to agree or disagree. And let's understand that those who say they want no retreat but do want a turnover of Iraq to the U.N. are, in fact, advocating both retreat and defeat. No one can really believe that what the world's only superpower won't do, Kofi Annan's blue helmets will do.

Nor did Bush shy away from putting a moral frame around his policies. Americans, he said without embarrassment, “are a religious people.” He reminded his audience that Britain's opposition to slavery sprang from religious conviction. Had realists favoring stability been in charge, slave ships would still be plying the Atlantic today. (He didn't quite say that – but I do.)

Bush did not back off his new paradigm of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As he first said in his June 24, 2002, speech, the Palestinians can have a state – or they can have terrorism and corruption. But they can't have both, not with U.S. support, anyway. He asked the Europeans to stop pretending that Yasser Arafat is anything but a terrorist and an obstacle to peace.

One more thing: Bush's timing is getting better. His jokes were well-delivered. And for the first time that I've seen, his facial expressions synchronized to what he was saying. All in all, a jolly good performance.

– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.