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In Last Lap, Bush Seeks Unity on Iraq

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
Updated: January 29, 2008

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President Bush says his final year in office will be dedicated to maintaining a large U.S. military presence in Iraq to sustain progress there. He also promised a range of economic efforts to revive the U.S. economy and make it more competitive internationally. But in matters of both security and prosperity, Bush said responsibility lay in large part inside the chambers of the Democratic-controlled 110th Congress.

Bush's final State of the Union speech to Congress came at a time when the economy dominates public concerns but he devoted considerable time to the five-year-old Iraq war. The president said the U.S. military was transitioning to a new phase of the war, from leading Iraqi forces to what he called an eventual "overwatch mission." He confirmed a drawdown of 20,000 forces in the coming months, less than some experts had expect after last year's buildup of nearly 30,000 forces in the "surge" strategy. "General 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,'" Bush said. "We must not allow this to happen." Ten CFR scholars examine Bush’s speech on CFR.org. Their assessments are broad-ranging—Sebastian Mallaby says the president’s stimulus package could help the economy but criticizes additional tax cuts. Max Boot says Bush’s policy on Iraq deserves credit but that he should be held to task for “failing to stand up to the Iranian menace.”

Staying in the Mideast, Bush called on Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment and cease support of terrorist activities in the Middle East, and closed with a warning: “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.”

On the home front, Bush called on Congress to renew legislation expiring February 1 that allows the government to track suspected terrorists contacting U.S.-based sources through warrantless wiretaps. That legislation has been hung up over concerns about the administration’s request for legal immunity for telecom companies that assist in electronic eavesdropping. After a Senate vote Monday to continue to debate on the issue, the stage was set for a legislative battle with the White House (The Hill).

Bush’s speech lacked the major new foreign policy proposals introduced in previous State of the Union addresses. Instead, he focused on urging Congress to sustain or expand funding on a range of initiatives.  He appealed for congressional approval of negotiated free trade deals with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea and stressed that a robust a free trade agenda is an opportunity to spurring economic growth in the United States. Open trade also underpins the spread of democracy, Bush said, adding that failure to approve deals such as the pending agreement with Colombia, “will embolden the purveyors of false populism in our hemisphere.” Bush faces a tough path in Congress, however, and the top Democratic presidential candidates have signaled they would slow down or make U.S. trade policy “fairer.”

The president also sought to link comprehensive reform of U.S. immigration policy with economic growth. Many lawmakers in Bush’s own Republican Party defeated a measure last year he supported that would have permitted a path to citizenship for many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country. But Bush repeated his call for Congress to revisit reform legislation, saying, "we will never fully secure our border until we create a lawful way for foreign workers to come here and support our economy." Bush also proposed boosting spending on his global program for AIDS relief, PEPFAR, doubling it to $30 billion over five years. That program has attracted praise from aid experts along with criticism for focusing too heavily on abstinence as a form of preventing the spread of the disease.

Bush repeated his call for an international “clean technology fund,” to help major developing nations—and major polluters—like India and China use more clean energy sources.

In a nod to a politically charged year with a presidential campaign in full swing, Bush urged Republicans and Democrats to show Americans they can “can compete for votes and cooperate for results at the same time.” But Democratic leaders signaled they were prepared to challenge the president on a number of foreign policy fronts. For example, a “pre-buttal” to Bush’s speech released January 25 by the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate called on him to restore U.S. moral authority in the world by renouncing the practice of “waterboarding” and commit to closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility for war on terror suspects.

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