AUSTIN, Texas -- A substantial nit to pick with President Bush's second Inaugural Address and some questions about his theme.

"From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the maker of heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave."

Oh dear. It took us almost 100 years to get rid of slavery right here in the Land of the Free, it took us another 100 years to get rid of legal discrimination based on race and gender, and how long it will take us to achieve equal opportunity for all in this country no one can say. At least we're working at it. Or we were.

The Bush theme of what someone else christened "evangelical democracy" is rather like the "From the day of our founding ..." passage -- actually, it's more complicated than that. I, too, am happy to proselytize for freedom and democracy, but I don't think we can export it by force and I don't think we can expect the world to accept our noble intentions.

Nor is democracy necessarily the cure for terrorism. As a British journalist pointed out, if Britain had been following the Bush plan, it would have nuked us years ago for being the largest single source of money for the Irish Republican Army. Reality is so often much more complicated than George W. Bush thinks it is.

Why didn't the Iraqis welcome us with flowers? Wasn't Saddam Hussein about as nasty a dictator as you can find? Because we invaded their country and are now occupying it. It is extremely difficult to convince people that you are killing them (and torturing them) for their own good. How would you feel? The British medical magazine Lancet estimates Americans have now killed about 20,000 Iraqis. We don't know for sure, because America has several policies that prevent anyone from keeping an accurate count.

Unfortunately, because of the violence in Iraq, we have achieved very little in the way of reconstruction there, so many Iraqis are actually worse off today, in terms of basic services like water and electricity, than they were under Saddam Hussein. We can still hope that the elections work out well in most of the country, but it's silly to say things are going well in Iraq, as some of my more delusional colleagues claim.

Actually, we have already tried foreign policy based on idealism: In one case, it didn't work worth a damn, and in the second, it produced pretty handsome results based on a pragmatic application of principle.

The first great foreign policy idealist in the presidency was Woodrow Wilson, everyone else having pretty much stuck to the Monroe Doctrine (pace our unfortunate venture into the Philippines, a sort of early Vietnam). Wilson got us into the insanely named "War to End War." (As A.J. Muste, the great pacifist, observed, "The way to peace is through peace.")

After that hideous slaughter, Wilson signed a treaty that set up the same war to happen all over again 20 years later. He was famously unable to get his own Senate to join the doomed League of Nations.

A rather better effort was made by Jimmy Carter, who based much of his foreign policy on human rights, the equivalent of Bush's "freedom." This consistent emphasis, applied over time, resulted in every country in Latin America (though not Central America) becoming a democracy.

Unfortunately, the rest of the world is skeptical of Bush's benign intent, mostly because he invaded a country that not only hadn't done anything to us, but also was no threat to us. (There is a new line on the right that goes, "But everybody in the whole world was saying Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction." Actually, everybody wasn't. Hans Blix and the U.N. inspectors had been unable to find any, even though we claimed we knew exactly where they were and had pictures of them. Quite a few people were beginning to doubt the existence of WMD, and what "everybody in the world" was saying at the time we went to war was, "Give the inspectors more time." In retrospect, it was quite good advice, wasn't it?)

At other points in the speech, one was left wondering, as one so often is, about Bush's grip on reality. Talking about his "ownership society," he said, "By making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny, we will give our fellow Americans greater freedom from want and fear, and make our society more prosperous and just and equal."

He's delusional: He cannot possibly believe his tax cuts are making this country more just and equal -- they are making it more unjust and unequal every day, not to mention getting us ever deeper into debt. One does not provide "freedom from want and fear" by privatizing Social Security. We've been there, we've done this -- we tried unregulated capitalism at the end of the 19th century, and it was awful.

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