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The State of the Union address? Ho-hum

COMMENTARY | January 30, 2007

The overseas press: Bush’s focus on environment is termed insincere, a means of changing the subject. But he and his legacy are widely viewed as trapped in Iraq

By John Burke

MADRIDGeorge Bush’s sixth State of the Union address was taken with a grain of salt by much of the foreign press. Proposals about balancing the budget and reforming the nation’s health care system were old hat; frequently invoked and rarely acted upon.

Included in these repeat pitches was the plan to remove the foreign oil IV from America’s vein but several papers cited Richard Nixon saying the same thing more than 30 years ago, after which America’s dependence on foreign oil only increased. 

Taking into consideration the whole picture, many in the overseas press doubted that Bush had even convinced himself about the environmental content of his speech: His real predicament lingers in Mesopotamia and any seeming appeasement of the Greens was simply another askew result of a war gone bad.   

For the foreign press, even if Bush succeeds in passing some substantial legislation in his last two years in office, his legacy will remain trapped in Iraq.

Bush tries to be a uniter, not a divider,” writes The Times of London. But in reality, the daily feels that Bush’s pull in Congress is next to nil with the Democratic majority. Despite suggesting he is reaching for a middle ground on some issues, Bush’s foreign policy, characterized by the Iraq War, is bound to remain the most defining initiative of his presidency:

“Having won control of congress for the first time in 12 years Democrats are already in the process of legislating their own agenda. And though Mr Bush did his best to dress up his main proposals – tax cuts and a balanced budget, energy conservation and health care reform - in the most attractive garb possible, he has about as much clout now with the legislature as a senior staff member on a Senate committee.

“Second, there was a strangely familiar, one might even say iterative quality to most of the speech. The centerpiece domestic policy proposed – a shift in energy consumption to reduce America’s dependence on imported oil – has been the stated goal of just about every president for the last 35 years. Measures to broaden the reach of health insurance also seem to have been an objective of every president in living memory. And yet the number of those who are uninsured does not seem to change much from one decade to the next.

“But above all, there was a palpable sense that the State of the Union was not really about the state of the union, that the fate of the country’s current course will be determined not by the panjandrums assembled in the House of Representatives last night but by American troops engaged far away and by ancient religious hatred and sectarian strife among barely pronounceable peoples.

“The president had already scooped his big speech earlier this month when he announced his plan to send more troops to Iraq in a last ditch effort to win the war. Against that all-consuming, contentious and consequential decision, everything else is mere furnishing.

“Mr Bush, of course, repeated the main aim of his new strategy and Democrats listened politely to some bromides on the war on terror and the importance of victory in Iraq. But behind the courtesies and the expressed unity of purpose, the battle that now rages over the conduct of American foreign policy will not pause to recognise the rituals of the political calendar.

“The war in Iraq – and what may yet be done in Iran – will dominate not only the politics of this congress and next year’s presidential election but perhaps the course of American history in the next decade or more. Either America’s fortunes will turn around thanks to the new strategy and history will look anew at the disastrous course of the last few years. Or the surge will fail and the collapse of Mr Bush’s final gamble will produce a political reckoning of unknown scale and consequence.”   


The Guardian leader “Bush whacked” grants Bush little benefit of the doubt, writing that although he may have a few months left to save his presidency, the State of the Union was not a very convincing speech and sadly, it doesn’t seem like he’ll be compromising with Congress any time soon: 

“The back-slapping, the rictus smiles and the standing ovations of the State of the Union speech are integral to the annual ritual. But they could not disguise the hard truth that this was a very different report to Congress than any that George Bush had delivered before… Unsurprisingly, Mr Bush's speech was a failure.

“Much analysis of the state of American politics is skewed by the barely disguised hope that Mr Bush and his Iraq policies will get the comeuppance they deserve. So it is important to recognise that Mr Bush is not a lame duck - yet. If he can use his powers smartly he has several months - at least until the autumn - in which to achieve some of his political goals before the floods of the 2008 contest start closing over his head.

But there was not much in Tuesday's speech to suggest a president who believes he has a strategy for dealing with the America that he faces in the coming two years. Mr Bush observed the right courtesies towards the new majority party and its leaders. But he was not defensive, and he was certainly not apologetic. On Iraq he talked of a fight that had to be won and a victory to which America must turn. He talked tough on the federal budget too, promising a plan to balance it next week. But he refuses to face the reality about both these crises. Most Americans think he got them into these holes and are reluctant to trust his solutions. More to the point, most members of Congress, including a lot of Republicans whose seats now look suddenly vulnerable, do not believe in them either. If Mr Bush is smart he will look elsewhere - immigration or the environment - for a bipartisan agenda.

“But is he smart? And is he bothered? The circumstances of the 2007 State of the Union carried interesting echoes of the 1999 speech. In each case, a pummelled and humiliated president faced a Congressional majority that mostly hated him and a minority that was sceptical. Eight years ago, at the height of the impeachment effort, Bill Clinton fought hard and clever, making concessions where he had to, but still summoning the authority to win some Congressional battles and to mobilise the public on his side. Mr Bush could try something similar. But he gives few signs of doing so. Perhaps he will surprise us all. Perhaps there is a Bush plan B. But Mr Bush looks increasingly like a general who has run out of ideas, troops and hope.”

Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung labels Bush’s speech a “Great Failure,” listing his numerous weaknesses in a divided government. Still, the paper deems that Bush will continue his stubborn policies, ‘staying the course,’ instead of following through with some of the State of the Union’s proposals, especially that on the environment:


“George W. Bush has never been so weak. And his address of the ‘State of the Union’ was his most sober ever. He is no longer the president that fantasizes about an ‘Axis of evil’ or flights to Mars. This is a president who can no longer use deceit to conceal disaster…

“Americans want the Congress… [which is led by the Democrats] to determine the direction of the war. That is a public vote of no confidence. In parliamentary systems like Britain or Germany, the time for the titan to tumble would be now. The Americans however, must endure two more years.

“In regard to that all-controlling question of Iraq, a powerful confrontation with Congress is in the making. Bush's ‘Stay-the Course’ plan has demonstrated to even well-meaning conservatives that his political clock is out of synch with the pulse of the country. Congress will reflect this and will demand that he make a correction. Bush will refuse…

“In regard to domestic affairs, during his speech Bush wanted to convince Americans that he still intends to pursue an important agenda in his remaining time in office. But the truth is, he has little to offer. His suggestions for health care reform had been taken-up by Congressional Democrats long before he suggested them.

“His pitch to improve standard at schools was just a regurgitation of a half-successful reform from his first term of office. His initiative to lowering energy consumption avoids the actual discussion.

“Surprisingly, from evangelical preachers to chief executives - even conservative America is now talking about climatic change. For years they wanted to know nothing about this self-inflicted catastrophe. That changed, and even Bush now acknowledges that the problem isn't going away, even of (sic) one closes his eyes.

“And there are now other leading voices: Governors have introduced new emission limits within their states and CEOs are demanding stricter emission laws for America as a whole. This Bush doesn't want.

“The Democrats have discovered in the climate controversy an important focal point for the future. On this issue too, Bush will put on the brakes, and with his veto prevent his country from following through until 2009 at the earliest.”

The Australian focuses on Bush’s “Green light for change” on the environment, evoked by energy security fears and a welcome diversion from the Iraq War. However, the daily doubts that there will be much of a greening of America in the near future:

“Are US politicians suddenly so convinced of the threat of global warming that they are prepared to do something about it?

“No: probably not for years, for all the talk. President Bush’s decision to refer to climate change and energy security in his State of the Union address shows that it is on the political map; so, more emphatically, do the congressional measures on the theme.

“That doesn’t mean that the White House or Congress is prepared to rush into action — nor should they be. Some of the reluctance stems from well-founded concern about economic growth, given the formidable size of the required changes.

“For a president’s scriptwriters, the State of the Union speech is a challenge of balance that it is almost impossible to get right: too domestic, and the president appears parochial; too foreign, and he appears evasive and irrelevant. Bush’s dilemma about whether to stir the planet’s atmosphere into that lumpy mixture was comical.

“After five years of war, climate change offers a welcome distraction — except that it is not a battle that is going to make any president look good. For all Al Gore’s success with his film “An Inconvenient Truth,” it is not a subject that flatters politicians: it is technical, threatening and its consequences potentially overwhelming for some communities — but impossible to predict. It flatters the more impersonal politicians, like Gore.

“The White House has stretched itself to accommodate the new mood by stapling climate change to the theme of energy security. It has been pushed into that position by the chiding of other leaders, notably Tony Blair and Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor — and by the conviction of the new Democratic-controlled Congress that this theme has great potential…

“Rising petrol prices have made Americans alert to their vulnerability, but no more willing to pay up. Nor does any politician want to risk higher fuel taxes, even if far below the levels in Europe. So they take refuge in plans to raise the fuel efficiency standards on new cars, among the lowest in the world.

“The US, in its objections to the Kyoto Protocol that have earned it such opprobrium in Europe, made fair points about the dependency of its economy on cheap transport and certain kinds of energy. It could not redraw those features as quickly as could Europe, with the “advantage” of jettisoning crumbling, dirty old industries.

“The benefits of US economic growth for other countries are clear. It is not ducking the issue to argue that in the interests of protecting that growth, it will change, but slowly.”

In “Echoes of Nixon,” Israel’s Haaretz conjures up images of the failed presidency of the 1970s, referring to Nixon’s promise to wean America off of foreign oil. Unlike Nixon, Haaretz thinks Bush may actually have a chance at accomplishing this goal. But in the end, once again, his presidency is all about Iraq:


“U.S. President George W. Bush was compared, and not for the first time, to Richard Nixon earlier this week. As Bush prepared to give his annual State of the Union address Tuesday night, his support in the polls continued to drop. Since Nixon's 1974 address, there has not been a president who appeared before Congress in such a weak political situation. But there is another Nixon comparison, an instructive one, that has evaded analysts. Just as Bush did Tuesday night, like other presidents in the past, Nixon asked in 1974 that America's dependence on foreign oil - that is, primarily Arab oil - be reduced…

“How similar Bush's message is to Nixon's, how similar are the reasons. Another 30 years will tell if the failure is also similar…

“But several parallel trends will help Bush try to reach the goal that his predecessors couldn't. These trends include rising oil prices, which are expected to continue going up as the two ascendant powers, China and India, increase their consumption; improved alternatives; and a strange coalition of hawks who see oil as an important strategic issue and environmentalists who support whatever they think will block the spread of global warming. Therefore, some say the conditions are ripe for the beginning of change whose significance it is difficult to exaggerate. Democratic leaders understand the importance of such a change no less than Bush does, and would have a hard time explaining their opposition to reasonable steps like the ones he proposed. True, they will say that it's not enough - certainly not enough to prevent former vice president Al Gore's climatological nightmare from coming true - and that's true. Bush isn't worried by global warming, but by the heating up of the oil front and its ramifications for national security…

“Bush's speech, therefore, could turn out to be an important one, but that will not necessarily be the case. Bush gave the speech while battered and drained. The energy market needs this shake up, but it's not clear if the president still has the political energy to set such major processes in motion. In any case. every sentence Bush uttered Tuesday that wasn't about Iraq was considered an attempt to distract the public from what is most important - as though such a powerful country can deal with only one issue at a time, and as though the world can wait until the war over Baghdad ends, in either victory or defeat.”

An Arab News editorial says that Bush is in a “Battle with reality” over Iraq. But what’s worse, according to the Saudi-based publication, the rest of the American people are not so much concerned about the outcome of the war as they are in saving their own global image:

“President George W. Bush is not involved in an epic struggle with terrorism in Iraq, as he claimed in his State of the Union Address. His battle is with reality and it is not one he is going to win. Almost four years after he invaded Iraq because of a lie, every element of his White House policy has been proven misjudged, ill-conceived and just plain wrong.

“He was, however, right about one thing [during the State of the Union]. He said if US forces withdrew, the Iraqi government would be beset by Shiite extremists backed by Iranian and Sunni extremists aided by Al-Qaeda and die-hard Baathists…What he did not say is that his own US-led invasion is directly responsible for this catastrophic situation.

“Had there been a plan to stabilize and restore Iraq the minute the fighting stopped, things might have been different. But the administration was too busy basking in its ‘victory’ and awarding fat contracts to US firms… US war planners knew precisely what damage they were going to cause.

“There were, on the other hand, no ‘peace planners’ to bring in thousands of generators and water purification plants to replace the utilities that were destroyed. (From the beginning of the occupation) Iraq was already sliding down the slope of lawlessness and anarchy at the bottom of which terrorism and sectarian violence have since flourished.

“Americans once backed their triumphant commander in chief. This includes nearly all the now congressionally dominant Democrats. But they all now want out of Iraq… Unfortunately US public opinion is not informed by an understanding of what has been done to the Iraqi people by their bungling president. What concerns them is the damage done to America’s international reputation and the steady flow of body bags and injured soldiers arriving in at home.

“It is already clear that US politicians, especially Democrats, are gearing up to blame the Iraqis for the tragedy that is unfolding in their country. In that it is often Iraqis killing Iraqis, they are right. They must also realize that such things would not be happening had their president and their government not have been so ignorant and arrogant.”

A second editorial in Arab News focuses on the parts of Bush’s speech about oil, declaring “Interdependence, not US rhetoric needed.” Despite his pledges, the opinion piece concluded that indeed the US will continue to depend on foreign oil, especially from the Middle East, for some time and should forget ideas of ‘energy independence’:

“In his annual State of the Union address, President Bush for the second year in a row targeted the issue of US oil independence — on the Middle East… America today is the global ‘gas guzzler.’ And indeed the US needs to mend its ways for the very stability and the continuity of this civilization. The consumption-oriented US economy definitely needs to look at its ways.

“…rhetoric became unsettling when President Bush started extracting political mileage out of this ‘sensitive and emotional’ issue: ‘This dependence leaves us more vulnerable to hostile regimes and to terrorists who could cause huge disruptions of oil shipments, raise the price of oil and do great harm to our economy.’ Who was he referring to and which regimes were in his mind — it became quite apparent.

“There are definite dangers when world leaders start speaking out their minds in that manner. In this world, as imperfect as it may be, ‘independence’ in absolute terms is not something one could aspire for. In real fact, ‘energy independence’ is even more elusive and less rewarding than is generally perceived…

“But despite the fact that most of the globally proven reserves are in countries that at best could be described as not ‘good friends of the US,’ the question remains can the US live without these.

“…to what extent all (the talk about alternative fuels and increased petrol efficiency) is implemented is yet to be seen. The president’s history in putting into action such pronouncements in past is indeed not very credible.

“Many do not see eye to eye with the presidential rhetoric and differ greatly with his political philosophies especially when seen in the background of the energy dynamics. The US economy will continue to rely on crude oil imports (for at least several more decades), panelists told a hearing this month.

“Unilateralism has not worked in the past, in this ‘interdependent world’ even if the sole superpower of the world wanted to be so and it won’t work in future too, one perhaps has to grudgingly accept. America some how will have to interact and sit down with the countries of the Middle East for its own sake and for the sake of the common civilization. After all, in this world, Middle East needs also a lot many things from the US and the rest of the world.”

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