Policy Shift? What Policy Shift?

President Bush’s inaugural vow to spread freedom and stand with the oppressed against tyranny was not meant to signal a shift in U.S. foreign policy but to elaborate on a long-term goal, a senior U.S. official said on Saturday.

Bush’s second inaugural address on Thursday raised questions about what measures he might use to bring about his vision of freedom.

Some experts wondered if it would cause strains with nondemocratic allies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan or alter the U.S. relationship with Russia amid Washington’s concerns the country is backtracking on democratic reforms.

“The speech builds upon our policy,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It states very clearly the long-term goal we should always be working to achieve.”

The official said there was a recognition that not all countries would be ready to embrace freedom and that furthering the goal would sometimes involve quiet diplomacy.

“The United States will work to push countries in that direction,” the official said. “That will require varied approaches. Sometimes it will be in public, and sometimes it will be in private. Countries have unique histories, cultures and traditions, and the pace at which they move will vary.”

Bush has been pushing a plan to promote democracy in Middle Eastern countries, calling it crucial to fighting terrorism and lessening the influence of militant groups like al Qaeda.

He has repeatedly discussed the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as missions of freedom, though some in the Arab and Islamic world cite the violence in Iraq as evidence of U.S. oppression.

Joshua Muravchik, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said Bush indeed was setting down a “marker” for world governments about his second-term foreign policy.

“I can’t imagine that he gave a speech that strong without realizing what he was doing or without intending to do what he was doing,” Muravchik said.

Bush is sending a signal to countries abroad that “he’s really going to take this issue and give it emphasis, give it more emphasis than they’re accustomed to,” Muravchik said.

Some analysts saw in the speech some possible implications for Iran, which Bush previously labeled part of an “axis of evil” with prewar Iraq and North Korea. Vice President Dick Cheney said on Thursday Iran was at the top of the list of world trouble spots.

During a visit to the White House on Saturday, former President Bush — the president’s father — said he thought his son’s speech had been misunderstood.

“People want to read a lot into it — ‘Is this a new aggression, a new military posture?”‘ the former president told reporters. “That wasn’t what it was about.”

Since his Nov. 2 re-election, Bush and his aides have emphasized a renewed focus on diplomacy and on shoring up relations with allies after strains over the Iraq war. He plans to go to Europe next month in his first trip abroad of his second term.

Bush’s father said the speech did not suggest any departure from that focus on diplomacy.

“I think the president would like to see the smoothest possible relationship, not just with Europe, but with Asia, South America, for heaven’s sake,” the former president said.

Peggy Noonan, former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, criticized Bush’s speech as naive.

“Ending tyranny in the world?” Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “Tyranny is a very bad thing and quite wicked, but one doesn’t expect we’re going to eradicate it any time soon. Again, this is not heaven, it’s earth.”