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U.S.: In State Of Union Address Bush Discusses Spread Of Freedom

U.S. President George W. Bush last night delivered the annual State of the Union address before a new session of Congress. As he begins his second term in the White House, Bush spoke mostly of domestic issues, but gave due attention to the international issues that marked the first four years of his presidency -- Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And, as he did during his inauguration speech two weeks ago, he spoke optimistically about the spread of democracy. But at least one political observer wonders whether the president made full use of his opportunity to address not only Congress and the American people, but also the world.

Washington, 3 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Bush has made it clear that the spread of democracy will be the grand vision of his second term as president. In last night's State of the Union address, he sounded that theme from the start.

"As a new Congress gathers, all of us in the elected branches of government share a great privilege: We have been placed in office by the votes of the people we serve. And tonight that is a privilege we share with newly elected leaders of Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories, Ukraine, and a free and sovereign Iraq," Bush said.

Bush also told the people of Iran that America stands with them in their pursuit of democracy. But at the same time he accused the Iranian government of being what he called the "primary state sponsor of terror." And he spoke of efforts by his administration and European governments to persuade Tehran to abandon any nuclear ambitions.

Similarly, he accused Syria of allowing its territory, and areas of Lebanon that it controls, to be used by terrorists. He said Damascus must stop such behavior or be held accountable. He did not elaborate.

For the most part, however, Bush's comments on the Middle East and the Muslim world were positive, focusing on elections in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian lands. He singled out the 30 January parliamentary elections in Iraq as an important first step to stability and an end to the violence that continues to wrack the country.

"We will succeed in Iraq because Iraqis are determined to fight for their own freedom and to write their own history. As [Iraqi] Prime Minister [Iyad] Allawi said in his speech to Congress last September, 'Ordinary Iraqis are anxious to shoulder all the security burdens of our country as quickly as possible.' This is the natural desire of an independent nation, and it also is the stated mission of our coalition in Iraq," Bush said.

Bush also spoke optimistically about prospects of ending more than four years of unremitting violence between the Israelis and Palestinians and moving toward two democratic neighbors living in peace.

"The beginnings of reform and democracy in the Palestinian territories are showing the power of freedom to break old patterns of violence and failure. Tomorrow morning, Secretary of State [Condoleezza] Rice departs on a trip that will take her to Israel and the West Bank for meetings with [Israeli] Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon and [Palestinian] President [Mahmud] Abbas. She will discuss with them how we and our friends can help the Palestinian people end terror and build the institutions of a peaceful, independent, democratic state," Bush said.

Bush asked Congress to approve $350 million to help the Palestinian economy and to reform their political and security apparatuses.

The rest of Bush's address was devoted to domestic issues, primarily the reform of the 70-year-old social-security program, which provides benefits for retirees and the disabled. The program is beginning to show some financial weakness.

As with his inauguration speech, Bush provided few if any details of his foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. As a result, he missed an important opportunity, according to Patrick Basham, who specializes in politics at the Cato Institute, a private policy research center in Washington.

Basham tells RFE/RL that Bush should have addressed not only Congress and other dignitaries present for the speech, but also the political leaders representing the two principal religious groups in Iraq.

Despite Sunday's election, Basham says, there remains the very real possibility of a civil war between Iraq's Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims. He says if Bush pays as much attention to the religiously driven political forces in Iraq as he does to security, U.S forces could leave the country sooner.

"The most important thing the president can do is to remind moderate elements of the Sunni and Shi'ite communities that they have the opportunity to reach a peaceful political accommodation that will be a win-win-win situation: a win for both Shi'ites and Sunnis, and a win for the United States, because that will make the departure of the United States (troops) a more likely prospect," Basham said.

Basham says Bush also needs to remake his policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He notes that too often during his first term, the U.S. administration seemed disengaged from the peace process, occasionally failing to restrain Sharon's response to Palestinian strikes.

"One of the problems for President Bush is that he and his administration are seen as particularly pro-Israeli. So long as Bush is seen as taking sides, that obviously is going to have an impact on the United States' ability to positively influence things in that part of the world," Basham says.

Basham says the world will be watching both Bush and Rice closely to see if the United States has become more of an honest broker.