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Bush's 'Sprint To The Finish' Could Offer Surprises

  • Robert Coalson

On the very day when most eyes were on presumptive Democratic Party presidential candidate Barack Obama, making what was billed as a major speech in Berlin, U.S. President George W. Bush delivered a lofty address in Washington that reasserted his "freedom agenda."

In his July 24 speech to mark Captive Nations Week, Bush reasserted his optimism that, despite the current challenge of "the new ideological struggle against violent extremism," "free nations...have prevailed, and we will prevail again." He said it is a "fundamental belief" of the United States that every person on Earth "is given the gift of liberty by our Creator."

Perhaps most importantly, Bush stated that the promotion of liberty globally is a "national interest" of the United States and called for the expansion of U.S. aid "targeted to encourage the development of free and accountable institutions," as well as to combat poverty, disease, and hopelessness.

Ever since the 2006 legislative elections in the United States, the Bush administration has been declaring the president's intention to "sprint to the finish" of his term. Bush himself repeated this during the Group of Eight (G8) summit in Japan earlier this month.

"He's going to be a very active president, I'm afraid, until 11:59...on January 20, 2009," investigative reporter and Bush administration critic Seymour Hersh said in a radio interview this month. "He's going to be an aggressive president until the end. I don't think there's any question about it.... He still has the ambition."

Moreover, U.S. presidents usually begin to think seriously about their historical legacies during their final months in office, and Bush is clearly no exception. The consensus on his presidency so far, to the extent that there is one, is generally not flattering. Bush's July 24 speech, which was high on the "vision thing" that so bedeviled his father, seems crafted as part of a legacy statement.

Iranian Question

So, the question is: What kind of "sprint" will we see from Bush in his remaining six months in office?

Hersh made his remarks during an interview in which he discussed the administration's policy toward Iran and what he sees as the increasing likelihood of military action against that country's nuclear program.

But, contrary to such expectations, the bellicose rhetoric in Washington has nearly fallen silent in recent weeks. Instead, there are growing indications that Bush's legacy on Iran might come in the form of a historic improvement of diplomatic relations. He sent Undersecretary of State William Burns to a face-to-face meeting with Iranian and EU diplomats on July 19, and there have been a flurry of reports suggesting the State Department is considering setting up an interests section in Tehran.

"For the first time since the 'axis of evil' speech [in 2002], we're seeing a level of dialogue which is taking on new momentum," Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told RFE/RL this month.

Bush's sprint seems to be taking unexpected forms in other arenas as well. Although his record on the environment is often derided and he has weathered intense criticism for his foot-dragging on global warming, there are reports that he intends to establish a number of "marine monuments" that could protect hundreds of thousands of square miles of unique ocean habitat. In an interview with National Public Radio in May, marine environmentalist Jack Sobel, who participated in White House meetings about the proposal, said the administration is thinking of "big steps, not small ones" that can be achieved before the end of Bush's term.

Not only are Bush's detractors being surprised by what they see -- some of his longtime supporters are as well. Prominent neocon and former Bush administration official John Bolton said -- referring to Bush's gestures toward Iran and to his recent willingness to accept a "time horizon" on withdrawal from Iraq -- that the administration is in "intellectual collapse." Republican Party activists are worried that Bush's seeming changes of position could harm the chances of Arizona Senator John McCain to succeed him. McCain has long supported Bush's tactics in Iraq and favored a hard line on Iran.

But Bush seems not to be allowing such concerns to dictate his efforts to reshape his legacy. Moreover, his last few months in office offer myriad opportunities for major policy contributions. The administration is currently negotiating a long-term security pact with Iraq, is participating in efforts to complete the Doha round of World Trade Organization talks, and is trying to hammer out a framework on global warming to replace the abandoned Kyoto Protocol.

In his July 24 speech, Bush referred to some of the great ambitions of his predecessors -- Woodrow Wilson's dream of making the world "safe for democracy," John F. Kennedy's pledge to "pay any price to assure the survival and success of liberty," and Ronald Reagan's vision of "a world in which all people are at last free to determine their own destiny." Clearly, as he sprints his last few months, Bush is thinking of the long term and the big picture.
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