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Somber Bush Speaks to Nation

Prepared by: Michael Moran
Updated: January 24, 2007

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While more attention appeared to be focused on the state of his presidency than the union, President Bush countered with determined talk of eventual victory in Iraq and against al-Qaeda. He offered some conciliatory words for the Democrats who displaced his party as the congressional majority in November, and a number of new domestic proposals on energy, health policy, and other issues.

He described his decision to send more troops into Iraq, the so-called "surge" he outlined in a speech earlier this month, as "the best chance for success." He also said he has told the Iraqi government it, too, must act decisively: "Our commitment is not open ended." The military aspects of the surge are examined in this Backgrounder.  But the president “may have been speaking into the void,” writes Dan Balz of the Washington Post, citing the turn in U.S. public opinion against the war. The day after his speech, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a nonbinding resolution, 12-9 along mostly party lines, expressing opposition to his surge plan as “not in the national interest” (AP). A vote in the full Senate may come as early as next week.

A survey of thirteen CFR experts found concern that the speech signals clashes with Congress on everything from Iraq to trade policy. The director of CFR's Washington program, Nancy E. Roman, told CFR.org's Bernard Gwertzman that Bush was "virtually pleading" with Congress to support his Iraq policy, but she also saw possibilities for common ground on energy and immigration reform. In the official Democratic response to Bush’s speech, freshman Sen. James Webb said the president had “recklessly” brought the nation into the Iraq war and must now bring the war to an end. If he does not, Webb said, Democrats will “show him the way" (NYT).

A strikingly different tone suffused the speech (BBC) when compared with the president's past State of the Union addresses. Foreign policy, predominant since the 9/11 attacks, made no appearance until the thirty-fourth minute of his speech, when he raised the subject of the "war on terror." Bush portrayed his administration's aggressive moves in Afghanistan and in Iraq as having put the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks on the defensive. "The security of our nation is in the balance," he asserted. "The great question of our day is whether America will help men and women in the Middle East build just societies … and I say, for the sake of humanity, we must."

But he conceded that, after a series of successful elections from Lebanon to Afghanistan to Iraq, a "thinking enemy" struck back horribly in 2006. Today, he said, "This is not the fight we entered in Iraq but it is the fight we’re in." The president placed an equal focus on Sunni and Shiite extremists in this part of his speech, charging that some Shiite death squads in Iraq work closely with Tehran. Yet, he insisted, in spite of the chaos, "It is still in our power to shape the outcome of this battle. Let us find our resolve and turn events toward victory."

The most notable difference between this speech and his previous speeches since the 9/11 attacks was its primarily domestic bent. Bush proposed a series of initiatives analyst suggest may be aimed at building some kind of bridge to the Democrats, who took over both chambers of Congress in last November’s elections. Bush seized on energy security, which is already generating bipartisan interest in the 110th Congress, calling for a big boost in federal support for using ethanol and other alternative energy sources, as well as increasing domestic oil production, as recommended by a recent CFR Task Force report. Bush also repeated his call for comprehensive immigration reform, which has become an economic, as well as moral, imperative (Foreign Affairs), writes the Manhattan Institute’s Tamar Jacoby. Bush garnered wide applause during his speech by calling for continued support for Africa’s fight against HIV/AIDS.

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