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Avoiding the state of the union

Bush's Middle Eastern policy is in chaos - so why was it the centrepiece of his presidential address?

Various Authors

Topics USA

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The State of the Union address is in danger of becoming a misnomer. US President George W Bush spent the first half of his speech talking about the Middle East and much of the rest discussing international affairs (1). How has the focus of the state of the union become so firmly fixed outside the union? It isn’t as if the White House has had much to celebrate in the Middle East of late. Indeed, Bush was so desperate that, for the second year in a row, he had to talk up the charade that was the 2005 Egyptian election (surprise winner – President Hosni Mubarak).

Meanwhile, despite its best efforts, the White House was unable to fix the Palestinian elections in favor of Fatah (2), and thus has to deal with the fallout of a Hamas victory. Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice this week admitted that she was confused by the State Department’s misreading of the situation and claimed: ‘It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse.’ (3) Indeed, it is surprising that the US government machine could not swing an election among one of the most marginalised populations in the world. Now, as American officials work to reign in Hamas, they are left looking like hypocrites (4).

Bush’s claim that in Afghanistan ‘a fine president and a national assembly are fighting terror while building the institutions of a new democracy’ is discredited by reports that the same fine president has been forced to sit down in talks with the very Taliban he was set up to expel (5). And Bush’s report on the situation in Iraq illustrated how little has changed since last year, when the Republican senators waved their ink-stained fingers at him in celebration of the first round of Iraqi elections.

This year Bush asserted: ‘The road of victory is the road that will take our troops home. As we make progress on the ground and Iraqi forces increasingly take the lead, we should be able to further decrease our troop levels’. Compare this with this passage from last year’s speech: ‘we will increasingly focus our efforts on helping prepare more capable Iraqi security forces…. As those forces become more self-reliant and take on greater security responsibilities, America and its coalition partners will increasingly be in a supporting role.’ (6)

The bad news didn’t end with the foreign policy. President Bush spent the second half of his speech laying out what was supposed to be a visionary domestic agenda. This was his chance to give the impression he has not been fatally crippled by the waves of criticism levelled at him over Katrina, Iraq, and recent Republican Party corruption scandals. Bush tacitly admitted to this concern, in his statement ‘we must never give in to the belief that America is in decline or that our culture is doomed to unravel’.

It is striking, then, that Bush reached only for recycled, failed, or stalled programmes. A number of Bush’s ‘new’ ideas were programmes he has yet to manage through Congress successfully. These included: making tax cuts permanent, passing some kind of immigration reform, and cutting various social policy programmes. Others were initiatives that solved problems he created earlier in his administration. These included a pledge to cut the budget deficit in half – a deficit that emerged under his watch – and addressing problems with healthcare coverage – also a product of a confusing and bungled policy that went into effect at the beginning of this year. Dealing with such gaffes hardly counts as progress.

A commission is a politician’s way of punting on an issue, and in this case, it was also an admission of defeat. Bush called for a commission to study the effect of the retiring baby boom generation on social security and Medicare. Not only has Medicare reform been a debacle, Bush was unsuccessful in getting any kind of social security reform through Congress. In calling for a commission, then, Bush was trying to package the inability to act as a form of action.

Bush also touched on a few recycled symbolic issues. The president once again pledged to ‘tackle’ the perennial HIV/AIDS problem, an issue which also graced last year’s State of the Union address. He also won loud applause with his guarantee to propose a bill to ban the nonexistent problem of human cloning. And there was the obligatory promise to improve maths and science scores – a nominal gesture in the direction of education, rather than a real educational policy.

No address is complete without the now traditional undertaking to fund renewable energy, and the President did not disappoint. However, here is where the only surprising moment of the evening occurred: Bush declared that ‘America is addicted to oil’, and pledged to ‘replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025’. This perplexing series of statements showed how hegemonic environmentalist thinking has become, while also showing it up as politically anodyne. If Bush can openly argue that America is addicted to oil, one wonders whether this ‘radical claim’ is more aimed at haranguing the average American citizen, who simply wants cheap energy, than political leaders.

Before the speech started, one commentator said Bush ran the risk of being a lame-duck president for the next three years. Given the absence of any new domestic ideas, the concentration on foreign affairs makes more sense. At least the White House can point the finger at the ‘bad guys’ in Iraq, and present itself as standing up for some kind of principle. With all the reminders of past domestic failures and omissions, one was overwhelmed by the sense that paralysis has already set in. It was jarring, then, to hear Bush begin wrapping up his speech with the line: ‘yet the destination of history is determined by human action.’ A noble sentiment, indeed, but one that Bush has proved wholly unable to live up to.

Alex Gourevitch and Nicholas Frayn are two of the co-editors of the blog Against the War on Terror, and members of the New York Salon.

(1) State of the Union Address, 2006

(2) ‘US Funds Enter Fray in Palestinian Elections’, Washington Post, 22 January 2006

(3) ‘Rice Admits U.S. Underestimated Hamas Strength’, New York Times, 30 January 2006

(4) Read, for instance, Hamas spokesman Khalid Mi’shal’s fiery editorial We will not sell our people or principles for foreign aid, Guardian, 31 January 2006

(7) ‘Karzai open to Taliban’s return’, Argus, 9 January 2006

(8) State of the Union Address, 2005

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Topics USA

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