While Bush himself seemed to be in high spirits and good humor, the hour-long speech -- most of which was devoted to domestic issues -- consisted mainly of shop-worn nostrums, especially his democratic messianism which even some of his staunchest supporters described as hollow-sounding in light of the reverses, particularly in the Middle East, of the past two years.
Saddled with the lowest sustained public-approval ratings -- currently hovering around 29 percent -- of any president in more than fifty years, as well as a Congress controlled by Democrats, Bush definitely falls into the category of a "lame duck," made even more lame by the fact that he has no chosen successor and that, despite their lusty cheering during his address, many Republican lawmakers consider him a political albatross for their own re-election chances.
At the same time, however, he retains enough Republican support to turn back -- as he did repeatedly last year -- Democratic efforts to enact legislation that would force him to reverse or substantially modify existing foreign policy, particularly with respect to Iraq.
Thus, the outlook for 2008 is for continued deadlock between a Democratic Congress that favors a relatively rapid withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq and greater diplomatic efforts to engage its neighbors, including Iran and Syria, and a president who believes as strongly as ever that last year's controversial "surge" of 30,000 additional troops there has enabled him to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and that even talking to Washington's regional foes is morally repugnant.
Indeed, his refusal to consider major modifications in his Iraq and Iran policy, in particular, over the next year was made abundantly clear Monday even before his speech.
After signing a defense authorization bill earlier in the day, Bush issued a statement asserting that he was free to disregard several of its provisions, including one that would bar funding for military installations that would provide "permanent stationing" of U.S. forces in Iraq.
In his address, Bush re-affirmed his commitment to reduce U.S. troops levels in Iraq to pre-surge levels of about 130,000 by August, but he also declared that any further reductions will depend "on conditions in Iraq and the recommendations of our commanders."
"General (David) Petraeus has warned that too fast a drawdown could result in the disintegration of the Iraqi security forces, al Qaeda-Iraq regaining lost ground (and) a marked increase in violence," he added, warning Congress once again against setting any timetable for withdrawal that could jeopardise the progress Petraeus' counter-insurgency strategy has achieved in pacifying key parts of the country.
As has become increasingly clear in recent weeks, Petraeus and his field commanders oppose proposals by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs to continue drawing down U.S. forces to as few as 100,000 by the time Bush's successor takes office.
And while, with respect to Iran, Bush eschewed the "axis of evil" moniker for which his 2002 State of the Union address will be long remembered, his words still sounded like an ultimatum seemingly calculated to evoke a negative response.
"Our message to the leaders of Iran is also clear," he declared. "Verifiably suspend your nuclear enrichment, so negotiations can begin. And to rejoin the community of nations, come clean about your nuclear intentions and past actions, stop your oppression at home, cease your support for terror abroad. But above all, know this: America will confront those who threaten our troops. We will stand by our allies, and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf."
In spite of the harshness of that tone, however, hawkish commentators complained that, like Bush's pro-democracy rhetoric, his demands sounded toothless and that he did not even mention the second surviving member of the "axis," North Korea, with which his administration began direct negotiations last year.
"[His] words on Iran last night rang hollow because his diplomacy has neither stopped Tehran's nuclear program nor cowed its larger regional ambitions," the neo-conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote Tuesday. "Without far tougher sanctions and more, Mr. Bush runs the risk of being the President who allowed the mullahs to realise their nuclear program."
Similarly, his re-affirmation that his administration and he personally "will do ...everything we can to help ...achieve a peace agreement that defines a Palestinian state by the end of this year" -- the one major new diplomatic initiative undertaken by Bush in the last few months -- was received skeptically here, as it was when the president toured the Middle East earlier this month.
"I was pleased to see Bush emphasize the importance of a deal in his speech," said Steve Clemons, head of the American Strategy program of the New America Foundation, "but he didn't outline how were going to get to success, and the absence of some key players in the (Israeli-Palestinian) negotiations process practically assures future convulsions..."
"What is one to make of Bush's apparent confidence in the imminent advent of peace between Israel and a 'democratic Palestine'?" asked Clifford May, president of the neo-conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "Surely the chances for that are about equal to those for real Social Security reform (and) passage of a comprehensive immigration bill," -- two of Bush's major second-term priorities on which he has apparently given up.
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Albion Monitor January
30, 2008 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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