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U.S.: Bush Focuses On Mideast Democracy, But Means Are Vague

U.S. President George W. Bush (file photo) In his State of the Union speech yesterday, U.S. President George W. Bush had strong words for American adversaries, as well as allies in the Middle East. He accused Iran and Syria of ties to terrorism and demanded that both countries reverse their course. Yet Bush stopped short of explicitly threatening either nation with military action. Instead, he offered a vision where democratic reform in the Middle East is at the top of America's agenda. But how he intends to achieve that goal remains unclear.

Prague, 3 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. presidents usually offer a glimpse of future policies in their annual State of the Union address. George W. Bush's speech last night was no exception.

Analysts say democratic reform in the Middle East emerged as the foreign-policy priority of Bush's second term. Concluding his 40-minute speech, Bush said freedom has always been America's calling.

"The abolition of slavery [in the United States in 1863] was only a dream -- until it was fulfilled. The liberation of Europe from fascism was only a dream -- until it was achieved. The fall of imperial communism was only a dream -- until, one day, it was accomplished. Our generation has dreams of its own, and we also go forward with confidence. The road of Providence is uneven and unpredictable, yet we know where it leads: It leads to freedom. Thank you, and may God bless America."

U.S. officials hope that recent elections in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories will inspire democratic developments across the Muslim world.

But analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say it remains unclear exactly what means Bush plans to use to pursue his goals.

Bush called Iran the "world's primary state sponsor of terror" and again accused the country of secretly pursuing nuclear weapons, which it denies. But he also strongly backed European-led diplomatic efforts to end that crisis.
"The liberation of Europe from fascism was only a dream -- until it was achieved. The fall of imperial communism was only a dream -- until, one day, it was accomplished." -- U.S. President George W. Bush

Michael Griffin, a British author and expert on terrorism, says Bush wants to keep his options open on Iran and Syria, which the president accused of harboring terrorists and thwarting regional peace efforts.

"No, I don't think he did tip his hand [with regard to the use of force]," Griffin said. "And I think that he's barking more than he's biting in this speech. What I do think is really interesting in this -- and this is why I say there's a kind of nuanced tilt of direction -- is what he says about Egypt. He says, 'And that great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.' Well, I think that's probably the first that the president of Egypt has heard about that."

Bush had other strong words for U.S. Middle East allies, urging them to aim for a "higher standard of freedom.”

He expressed hope that reforms will progress in Morocco, Jordan, and Bahrain. And he urged Saudi Arabia to "demonstrate its leadership in the region by expanding the role of its people in determining their future."

Bush also promised to "stand with" Iranians in their quest for liberty. But whether Bush intends to do any more than that again remains unclear, says analyst Jean-Pierre Darnis of the Institute of Foreign Affairs in Rome.

"I would say [Bush divulged] no clear knowledge of the means," Darnis says. "And it's the same for Iran. Because Iran, in the future, you've got two main solutions: Either you go down there and you strike before they get the bomb, or you don't go and you stay in a diplomatic policy. And still, I'm not sure that the U.S. administration has a complete view on what's the best solution on that."

But Yossi Mekelberg, an Israeli analyst with London's Royal Institute of International Affairs, believes Bush's message was clear enough to be understood in the Syrian and Israeli capitals.

"I think the way it will be read in Tehran and Damascus today is that, yes, there wasn't a direct threat, and you wouldn't expect [one] in the State of the Union address," Mekelberg says. "But at the same time, if they don't move in a certain direction or there are no changes, it is a possibility."

More concrete, Mekelberg notes, was Bush's offer of 350 million dollars in assistance to help the Palestinians.

"This is a real breakthrough. And it's quite a sum, which can help the Palestinians in this situation," he says. "But in particular, it's symbolic, and it's a change in American policy at the moment, or [a change in] the Bush administration."

Mekelberg notes the assistance represents a sharp break with previous administration policy, which cut off most funding for Palestinians after the failure of peace talks and the outbreak of violence in 2000.

The money is intended to rebuild Palestinian infrastructure, pay salaries, and support moderates as they start a new round of talks with Israel.