Some knowledge of history and the memories of a long life have given me a sense of wonder at the shape-shifting habit of ideals and the ideologues who espouse them. What brings this to mind is the eloquent and idealistic foreign-policy speech that President Bush recently gave in London.

Some commentators liken Bush's rhetoric to the idealism of Ronald Reagan, but it has earlier, Democratic antecedents, both in Woodrow Wilson's war "to make the world safe for democracy" and in FDR's "Four Freedoms." In both cases, these ideals were carried forward on American bayonets. By the way, both presidents bucked considerable opposition from American isolationists -- mainly Republicans.

Bush's London address was masterfully crafted to defend his foreign policy against widespread European hostility. And by most accounts, he seems to have been at least partially successful, though parts of it sounded a bit off-key.

Bush offered a softer, more human image than the one Europeans have become used to. He showed himself capable of disarming, self-deprecating humor. He was conciliatory, admitting that there were "good-faith disagreements in your country and mine" over the war in Iraq. And he added something with which many of us who opposed that war agree: "Whatever has come before, we now have only two options: to keep our word or to break our word."

Bush cited (some might say "stole") a number of liberal themes. He identified himself with Wilson. His confession that "your nation and mine in the past have been willing to make a bargain to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability" has been a liberal complaint from the days of the Cold War to the present. He even embraced Bill Clinton's intervention in the Balkans, likening it to his own actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So, why did the speech sound off-key to you, Cronkite?

For several reasons: In some instances I have to question, if not Bush's sincerity, at least the depth of his conviction. That depth is suspect because of his poor record of following through. In Afghanistan, the pledge to reconstruct and democratize that country seemed all but abandoned in order to concentrate forces and finances on the invasion of Iraq.

Remember the "road map" for Israel/Palestine? Palestinian terrorists shredded it with their suicide bombs, but not before Bush had failed in his promise to pressure both sides to make critical concessions. He denounced and renounced Yasser Arafat, but seemed, as he had in the past, unwilling or incapable of holding Ariel Sharon's feet to the fire.

Today there is growing skepticism concerning his promise to stay the course in Iraq. With the security situation there worsening by the day, the decision to craft a new plan seemed not just defensible but mandatory. But suspicions were raised by the new timetable, which would put an Iraqi council in charge by next June and send a substantial number of American troops home.

It might be simply coincidental that this timing meshes with next year's re-election campaign. But coincidence does inspire some skepticism.

When questioned by reporters in London about the reduction of forces, the president said we might have fewer troops in Iraq, or stay at the current level, or have more troops there, whatever is needed to do the job. But the White House rushed to say the president didn't mean there would be more troops there next year. So it seems fair to ask just what's going on here.

There is a related issue that does go directly to Mr. Bush's sincerity. That is his acknowledgement in the London speech of "good-faith disagreements" over the war. How does that harmonize with the Republicans' (and Bush's) egregious use of such disagreements to bludgeon the Democrats prior to the 2002 midterm elections -- a political mugging we can expect to see more of next year? That's why, while admiring his rhetorical skill and honoring some genuine idealism, I still hear some sour notes in his London speech.


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