In this issue:
President Bush's State of the Union was noteworthy for not being particularly noteworthy. The speech contained few new initiatives. Apart from addressing the need for a fiscal stimulus, President Bush stuck closely to familiar themes—the need to fight terrorism, the importance of spreading freedom, the need for patience in Iraq. It is not particularly surprising that the president chose more of the same; after all, he is in his final year of office. On the other hand, the United States faces a long list of pressing challenges around the globe, many of which urgently require new and innovative policy approaches. After tonight's speech, it appears such new approaches will have to await the next president.
The speech was also noteworthy for the narrowness of its treatment of foreign policy. The role of America's traditional allies, the more assertive stance of Russia, the rise of China, India, and other countries, recent developments in Latin America—these topics received scant attention. The United States needs to take the lead in adapting the international system to a changing distribution of global power. Again, it looks as if addressing this challenge will have to await the next U.S. president.
On foreign policy, President Bush's final State of the Union address closely tracked its predecessors. Iraq took top billing, as it has since 2002. Afghanistan got respectful but brief mention, as it always does. Iran's government was again warned and condemned, and its demise predicted. Israel and the Palestinians were urged to make peace—in slightly more detail this year because of the administration's diplomatic initiative. And that was basically it. It was as if the world outside the greater Middle East doesn’t exist.
Bush's speech offered a useful illustration of the limits of his two main foreign policy themes: the war on terror and the promotion of liberty. Obviously, combating violent jihad deserves discussion, especially with America fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But by describing it as the defining foreign policy challenge of our time, as Bush did again in the speech, he turns much of Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America into a strategic afterthought.
Bush was also right to stress America's commitment to global liberty, a theme espoused by virtually every president since Wilson. But by providing no conceptual framework except democracy-promotion, he found himself with no language for discussing U.S. policy toward authoritarian powers that we cannot realistically isolate. It is an odd State of the Union speech that mentions Sudan, Zimbabwe, Belarus, and Burma, but ignores Russia and China. But that is the natural result of Bush's ideological straitjacket. If democracy promotion is America's sole global foreign policy framework, countries weak enough to pressure are worth discussing. Countries too powerful to pressure, by contrast, must be ignored lest they expose the limitations of the theme.
President Bush's advisors like to suggest that he has created an intellectual legacy that his successors will have to adopt regardless of party, as Eisenhower adopted containment from Truman. But if the next president adopts Bush's ideological strictures, he or she will also end up giving State of the Union addresses that never mention China. And that's an intellectual legacy not worth inheriting.
President Bush proposed two budget initiatives that would have divergent consequences for U.S. interests. His call to make the tax cuts permanent would drain the federal government of money, making it harder to pay for international commitments and deepening the nation's unhealthy dependence on foreign capital.
But his support for the $150 billion stimulus agreed upon in the House of Representatives last week was constructive. Assuming timely action from the Senate, the stimulus will boost the flagging economy in the second half of this year, and it will reduce the extent to which the Federal Reserve has to cut interest rates. Interest rate cuts tend to drive the dollar down, and avoiding too many of them enhances the chances of preserving the dollar's status as the global reserve currency.
Bush also called upon Congress to pass trade deals, and correctly said that the losers in an open economy should be helped with Trade Adjustment Assistance. But he could have gone further and advocated that the nation should adopt a system of wage insurance, as this Council Special Report argued last year.
Foreign policy nearly always trumps economics and that was true in this State of the Union as well. In a war-free world, bilateral free trade agreements are less good than multilateral ones—economically they make less sense and sometimes distort the flow of trade. But given the news from Latin America, and the eventual passing of Fidel Castro, the bilateral agreement with Colombia that Bush pushed tonight makes sense. Even as the news organizations were receiving an embargoed copy of the State of the Union, they were reporting that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was pushing a military alliance against the United States.
President Bush said that if we fail to pass the Colombian bilateral agreement "we will embolden the purveyors of false populism." He is not wrong.
Other economic policies in the speech were also influenced by U.S. challenges abroad. Instead of plugging hard for making his earlier tax cuts permanent, as he might have done in pre-Iraq days, the president merely included that permanence concept in a basket, along with the $150 billion temporary stimulus package. Yesterday it was earmarks. Today it is stimuli. Both are more political than economic. The popular stimuli in the bipartisan package are not as important to U.S. competitiveness as the currently unpopular idea of making the income tax rate cuts permanent.
The president was notably upbeat on Iraq. And Iraq's prognosis is indeed better today than it has been for a long time. An end to major violence is now a real possibility, and with it a major reduction in the risk of a wider war and the human cost of further bloodshed for both Americans and Iraqis. These are important opportunities.
But they won't produce Eden on the Euphrates. The President's address notwithstanding, liberty will take a back seat to security in Iraq for many years to come. A stable Iraq—if we can get it—would probably look a lot more like Bosnia or Kosovo than like Japan or Germany. And like Bosnia and Kosovo, stability would probably require peacekeepers: a long-term presence by foreign troops to keep a patchwork quilt of wary former enemies from turning on one another.
So there is hope for Iraq. But this is no time for a victory parade. Stability's requirements are hard; its payoff would be imperfect; and if any of this is to be realized then a great deal of hard political work will be needed to convince a skeptical public that the payoff is worth the cost.
President Bush tried to put a positive spin on his administration's track record of promoting democracy in the Middle East, and on his belated efforts to jumpstart peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. But the realities of the region contradict Bush's rhetoric.
Lebanon—which was cited by Bush as an example of a country that recently produced "stirring moments in the history of liberty"—today is facing the worst internal political crisis since the end of its 15-year civil war in 1990. More broadly, there are few signs that Israelis and Palestinians will be able to carry out substantial negotiations this year that would lead to a peace deal by the time Bush leaves office.
Arab leaders blame the breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian talks on Bush's refusal for seven years to actively engage in Middle East peacemaking, until the recent Annapolis summit. Even limited progress on peace efforts could provide diplomatic cover for the Sunni Arab states to cooperate more closely with the United States, and work to isolate Iran.
On his highly touted visit to the Middle East earlier this month, Bush failed in his most urgent mission: to convince Arab leaders that their best hope for countering Iran is to stick with the United States. While they showered Bush with gifts and praise in their opulent palaces, Sunni Arab leaders were sizing up whether his lame duck administration is capable of containing Iran. The largely Sunni Gulf states still view Iran as a significant threat, but they now favor negotiation with Tehran instead of confrontation. Bush tried to convince the Arab states, especially the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, to isolate Iran. But the Emirates have substantial banking and economic ties with Tehran. And in recent months, Saudi Arabia has taken significant steps to reach out to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Saudis and other Arab regimes are most concerned with their own survival, and they realize the waning power of the Bush administration.
President Bush was right to say that the surge has "achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago," and he deserves credit for implementing it.
His message about Iran was less compelling. He called on the mullahs to stop their nuclear enrichment work, stop oppressing their own people, and stop their support of terror abroad. But he provided no idea of how to achieve these important goals beyond more of the same—which is to say lofty rhetoric (such as in the State of the Union) backed up by weak sanctions. He made no mention of the National Intelligence Estimate issued by his own intelligence community, which makes it much tougher to get tough with Iran. Instead of offering fresh thinking, he offered stale threats: "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."
Those are certainly laudable goals. But the Iranian leaders can be forgiven if they don't take these words seriously coming from a president who, even when he wasn't a lame duck, did little to either foment peaceful regime change in Iran or to punish its rulers for their acts of aggression: acts that have resulted in the deaths of American soldiers. Bush's failure to stand up to the Iranian menace represents perhaps the biggest failure of his presidency—unless it is eclipsed by his failure to deal with the looming threat of Pakistan, which earned barely any mention at all in this State of the Union.
Yet those shortcomings may be forgiven by posterity if his bold gamble to turn around the war in Iraq—the defining issue of his presidency—ultimately pays off.
President Bush's discussion of foreign policy was very clearly couched in terms of the Freedom Agenda, pitting terrorism and extremism versus freedom and democracy. The United States' engagement in Afghanistan was justified as a vital national interest and a means to deny a foothold to our nation's enemies: the terrorists and extremists. Pakistan, too, was fitted into this scheme, as the president made a passing reference to Benazir Bhutto's mourners who paid a price for pressing ahead for democracy.
But by playing up the theme of the Freedom Agenda, the president once again missed an opportunity to articulate a specific strategy for advancing U.S. goals in these exceedingly complicated states, where stability and political reform are not uniformly complementary. Pakistan, a country that combines terrorism, nuclear weapons, a history of regional tensions, and a tumultuous political transition, exemplifies just these sorts of complications. And while the president is to be commended for recognizing that Afghanistan is a vital U.S. interest, he offered little in terms of a plan for reinvigorating U.S. efforts there over the long haul. The addition of several thousand U.S. Marines is a start, but more a stopgap than a solution.
In sum, with respect to Pakistan and Afghanistan, the president fell into a familiar pattern: his soaring ambition lacked convincing plans for implementation.
The key announcement made in regard to global health issues was President Bush's call for a doubling of funding for the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR): this is not new. The call to reauthorize funding for PEPFAR at twice its current level, bringing it to $30 billion, for five years worth of HIV/AIDS programs in 15 countries sounds impressive, but it was included in the White House FY09 budget request, sent to Congress months ago. In both the House and Senate Democrats well surpassed the Bush administration request, counter-offering $50 billion. In effect, then, the president was asking Congress to reduce PEPFAR spending by $20 billion.
The president mentioned plans to reduce malaria illness by half in sixteen countries. Here, again, he has backed off from higher ground. In prior speeches, Bush called for "eradicating malaria illness in Africa," a far larger goal.
Earlier today, the White House indicated President Bush would unveil what staffers said was a "big idea to end hunger." This turned out to be a call to reverse longstanding administration support for policies that compel U.S.-supported food programs to buy agricultural products from American farmers, at far greater cost than would be incurred by purchasing crops from local producers in poor countries. The old policies served two deleterious roles: food cost more and when distributed free in poor countries undercut local farmers. While the reversal of that policy will be welcome news for starving people in famine-struck regions of the world, and for the poorest farmers on earth, it should be noted that the American farm lobby no longer blocks foreign purchasing. The cessation of most domestic opposition to overseas purchasing is a result largely of the Bush administration support of corn production for ethanol. Ethanol priorities in the United States have radically driven up the cost worldwide, threatening to worsen malnutrition in poor countries.
President Bush went through a short checklist of African issues in his speech, reiterating long-standing administration policies and programs in Africa. He restated U.S. opposition to "genocide in Sudan," while proposing nothing to end it. He expressed his support for "freedom in Zimbabwe," but did not suggest anything new that the United States would do to achieve it. The president endorsed U.S. leadership in the global fight against poverty but did not indicate an enhanced U.S. commitment.
He called on Congress to "fully fund" his signature Millennium Challenge Corporation, which despite solid bipartisan support has been allocated not more than half of the funding that the administration has requested in the past several years. He also urged Congress to pass a new law that would, for the first time, permit U.S. taxpayers' funds to purchase food surpluses generated by foreign farmers. (To date, the United States can purchase excess farm production only from American farmers.) While he mentioned his anti-malaria initiative in Africa, Bush reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the fight against HIV/AIDS and asked Congress to appropriate $30 billion over the next five years for that battle.
While signaling his strong support for continued U.S. engagement in Africa, the president did not acknowledge the difficult tradeoffs that must be made, in terms of both policy concerns and resource allocations, as the U.S. government sets its international priorities for the coming year.