WASHINGTON – President Bush's inaugural address, with its emphasis on spreading democracy and eliminating tyranny throughout the world, was not meant to signal a new direction in U.S. foreign policy nor to portray America as arrogant, his father said Saturday.
"People want to read a lot into it — that this means new aggression or newly assertive military forces," former President Bush (search) told reporters during an informal visit to the White House briefing room. "That's not what that speech is about. It's about freedom."
In Thursday's speech, Bush said: "We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right."
That raised the question whether Bush intended to apply new standards to allies or partners who keep democracy at arm's length and have poor records on human rights. Did that mean he would pursue democracy in places like China? Would he try to reverse moves toward reinstating authoritarian rule in Russia? How far will he go to challenge the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran?
"It doesn't mean instant change in every country — that's not what he intended," Bush said about his son's second inaugural address.
The president, who during the 2000 election campaign disparaged "nation building" by President Clinton's administration, pledged in his speech Thursday to advance liberty in nations whose people were deemed repressed.
The United States has maintained strong ties, however, with governments whose policies it criticizes. For example, the State Department says some allies in the war against terror — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan — engage in political repression to varying degrees.
"As I stated in my inaugural address, our security at home increasingly depends on the success of liberty abroad," the president said in his weekly radio address Saturday. "So we will continue to promote freedom, hope and democracy in the broader Middle East — and by doing so, defeat the despair, hopelessness and resentments that feed terror."
Some Asian nations have expressed suspicion that the inaugural speech pointed to a more aggressive foreign policy that could worsen global tensions. In recent days, North Korea's communist government, through its official news agency, denounced the United States as a "wrecker of democracy" that North Korea said "ruthlessly infringes upon the sovereignty of other countries."
The president has been accused of having a go-it-alone approach to foreign policy, but his father said the speech was not meant to signal U.S. self-importance or aggressiveness.
"They certainly ought to not read into it any arrogance on the part of the United States," the former president said.
The elder Bush dropped by the White House's blue-curtained briefing room in the West Wing with Phil Morse, an owner of the 2004 World Champion Boston Red Sox. An aide said Bush came in while showing Morse and others in his party the executive mansion. Reporters asked the former president's views of his son's inaugural speech, and his interpretation agreed with that passed anonymously to reporters on Friday by White House officials.
The elder Bush, the second U.S. diplomat sent to China in the 1970s, who was president during the Persian Gulf War a dozen years ago, brushed off questions about the coming Jan. 30 elections in Iraq.
"I'm convinced the elections will come off," he said. "I honestly don't keep up with the details about what sheik is doing this and what Muslim leader is saying that. I hate to say, but I'm out of it. I'm still interested, and I still read up, but I don't discuss that a lot over here (at the White House)."
He joked that he tries to avoid making statements that would prompt reporters to run to White House press secretary Scott McClellan for comment about what the president's "nutty father" said. "The last thing I would want to do is clutter up his (the president's) life by making some statement about the election or anything else," the elder Bush said.
The former president visited the briefing room shortly after the current occupant of the White House returned from a mountain bike ride that ended just as heavy snow began falling in Washington. Although indoors, the elder Bush stayed bundled in his charcoal gray overcoat, scarf and blue tie as he talked about the "jillion" relatives in town for the inauguration.
"I'm not sure I could pass the test if I had to name every member of the family," Bush said. "When you're 80, that's what life is all about. That's what matters — family."