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The State of the Union Address: when reality bites

02 February 2006

The State of the Union Address is considered to be the most important annual speech in the US and the major occasion for the President to outline his priorities and influence the agenda of the Congress. In the past, George W. Bush used this occasion to announce radical policy changes and major new initiatives. For example, his 2002 speech was the first time when the President used the famous reference to the 'axis of evil', declaring Iraq, Iran and North Korea to be threats to 'the peace of the world'. In subsequent years Bush prepared the nation for the war in Iraq, announced tax cuts, immigration reform and a major overhaul of the social security system. Whilst the implementation record of these initiatives is rather mixed, there is no doubt that previous addresses were full of big, structural and sometimes even revolutionary ideas.
This year's address was different. It concentrated on continuity and consolidation rather than bringing forward new initiatives. President Bush used the occasion to start securing his legacy rather than plunging into uncharted waters and flooding the legislature with new ideas. In contrast to earlier occasions, the speech also lacked audacity.
There are some objective reasons why this was the case, Bush is now in his second term and there are forthcoming Congressional mid-term elections in November. Judging by current trends, the Republican majority in the Congress will be reduced or perhaps even lost to the Democrats, leaving the President with a much less co-operative legislature. In the background, there is Iraq with no sign of improvement on the horizon and mounting US casualties. Beyond these structural factors it has also been clear for some time - at least since the Katrina disaster - that this Presidency is running out of steam. The same is true for the Republican majorities in the Senate and the Congress, which have been troubled by lobbying scandals and internal divisions.
However, whilst the 2006 address delivered little that is new, it was still confident in tone and consistent with the vision of the Presidency that Bush has advanced since 9/11. As such, the speech focused on foreign policy and national security - aspects that are most likely to determine President Bush's legacy once he is out of office.
Foreign policy - engagement, democracy and energy
The foreign policy mantra of this year's address emphasised three principles:
The US should stay internationally active and engaged. With dangers originating from far-away corners of the world (Afghanistan, Iraq) the President concluded that the US could not afford 'the false comfort of isolationism'.
<br />The US will continue to promote democracy in the world and in particular in the Middle East. The President has again clearly and unmistakably subscribed to the notion that tyranny breeds instability and terrorism, whilst democracy leads to moderation and peace at home and abroad. He conceded, however, that democracies in the Middle East will not necessarily be the same as America's and that they will reflect 'the traditions of their own citizens'.
<br />Staying the course in the 'war on terror' and especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. <br />There is of course nothing new about these principles and we have heard them in the previous addresses since 9/11. Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the speech was the proposal for the new energy strategy, which although not a part of the foreign policy agenda was clearly motivated by international circumstances. The principal aim of the proposal was to reduce by 75% America's dependence on Middle Eastern oil by focusing on the development of alternative energy sources. <br />Beyond these broad principles the speech has also addressed some specific foreign policy questions, with potential implications for the EU.
<br />What are the implications for the EU?
Iran. Considering current - extremely tense - relations with Tehran (which is about to be referred to the Security Council), the speech was unusually conciliatory. Whilst the President stressed that a nuclear-armed Iran was unacceptable, he went out of his way to assert that America had no quarrel with the Iranian people and that the country's 'right to choose its own future' must be respected.
In his comments following the speech, Dan Fried, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, stressed that the President wanted to make a distinction between the regime and the Iranian people. It was the President's intention to make it clear that the Iranian people are not the enemy and he wanted to send 'a very strong signal of support to them'.* It seems that Washington has realised that the former emphasis on 'regime change' and the use of threatening language (the 'axis of evil' speech) were ineffective and potentially counter-productive. Hence the new approach, which suggests an empowerment of domestic opposition and an advocacy of change from within Iran. The speech suggests that at least in the foreseeable future Washington's Iran policy will be focused on the non-aggressive promotion of democracy and perhaps refraining from belligerent posturing.
The lack of coercive rhetoric or reference to the use of force is also seen as a clear indication that Bush intends to adhere to the current approach whereby Europe leads on Iran. In the words of David Frum (a Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of a book about Bush) the President's rhetoric means that he intends to continue with negotiations and has not yet decided what he would do if and when negotiations fail (which in Frum's view is bound to happen). At this point in time, as argued by Frum, the US wants 'the Europeans to lead and we will follow'.
<br />Iraq. On the surface, President's message on Iraq is steadfast and unwavering. Bush swept aside suggestions that the situation on the ground was uncontrollable, and that the US was tired and preparing its retreat. 'We are in this fight to win, and we are winning'; 'We must keep our word, defeat our enemies, and stand behind the American military in this vital mission' - these were clear enough messages of America's intention to remain in Iraq until the mission is declared a success.
On the other hand, there was a hint in the speech that a progressive withdrawal may be already underway (which has been indeed confirmed by some conservative analysts). The President argued that a further decrease of US troops will depend on the Iraqi forces' ability to take the lead - a process that seemingly has already started to accelerate. It was also stressed that a decision to withdraw will be reached by the military and not by politicians. It is not implausible to imagine that at some point over the next few years (for example, in the run-up to the 2008 elections) the tired and over-stretched military may be 'encouraged' to reach this conclusion.
<br />Palestinian Authority. The President spoke very briefly about the situation in the Palestinian Authority, and then only in the context of democratisation in the Middle East. The statement reflected the ambivalence felt in the US about the recent elections, which brought to power radical Hamas. Whilst the President noted that democracy was taking root in the Palestinian Authority, he made it clear that Hamas 'must recognise Israel, disarm, reject terrorism, and work for lasting peace'.
It was interesting, however, that the President did not put these demands in the form of conditions with some 'sticks' (e.g., withdrawal of US financial support) attached. This relatively 'soft' approach was explained by Dan Fried as giving Hamas some time to rethink and moderate itself through governing - 'we've closed no doors, but they are the ones that have to make a decision'. Fried has also argued that the approach was consistent with the EU's policy and that the unity of the Quartet was essential for reaching a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian issue.
It therefore appears that, at least for the time being, the US is keen to deal with the issue by making use of existing multilateral instruments and perhaps keeping a relatively low profile itself. It is also possible that the US is now favouring a stronger involvement of the EU. <br />Key points
The State of the Union Address was less bold than previous speeches and brought forward fewer new initiatives.
<br />The speech's most innovative policy proposal was the call for a new energy strategy, aimed at reducing America's reliance on petroleum in general and on Middle Eastern oil in particular. Experts remain sceptical, however, arguing that the President's proposal was thin on specifics.
<br />The foreign policy agenda remained dominated by the usual arguments about continuing international involvement (rejecting isolationism), the promotion of democracy and staying the course in the war on terror. <br />The policy approach as indicated in the speech towards Iran, Iraq and the Palestinian Authority is of consequence for the EU. It may give rise to a greater level of EU engagement in the Middle East.