It makes a sort of sense that an administration marked by complete chaos and pulled in dramatically different foreign policy directions would turn back to the September 20, 2001 speech as a safe model. Like Trump, W ran for president as a critic of nation-building and an opponent of fighting wars for the sake of upholding liberal internationalist ideals. By the 2002 State of the Union address, when Bush first spoke of an Axis of Evil and implied a war to overthrow Saddam Hussein might lurk on the horizon, he had been persuaded by the very different (and far more ambitious) arguments of his neoconservative advisers.
But in the days immediately following the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Bush was more restrained. He indicated that a war to depose the Taliban government in Afghanistan was looming if it refused to turn over Osama bin Laden and give the U.S. access to al Qaeda’s training camps within the country. He assured Muslims the world over that America respected their faith — and that the terrorists who launched the deadly assault on the United States were “traitors to their own faith — trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.” He also declared that America’s only enemies were those countries that harbor terrorists or sponsor terrorism. With its resolute focus on America’s national interests combined with the determination to uphold and champion universal civilizational ideals, Bush’s speech sounded an awful lot like an example of … principled realism.
In that sense, it’s a very good thing that Trump and his advisers took the relatively moderate and nuanced September 20 speech as a model. But it raises big questions about the Trump administration’s stance toward the world.