Lindsay: Bush’s State of Union Address Underscores President’s ’Political Weakness’

February 01, 2006

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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James M. Lindsay, CFR’s expert on politics and foreign policy, says President Bush’s latest State of the Union address was "fairly predictable" and "testament to his political weakness, and the constraints he faces, constraints in good part because of decisions he’s made over the past several years concerning foreign policy."

Lindsay, who is vice president and director of studies, says Bush’s comments on Iran were "much less forceful" than in the past, and underscored the United States was tied down by the continuing engagement in Iraq, "which greatly constrains the president’s abilities in dealing with Tehran, even leaving aside the fact that Iran is a much more difficult issue than Iraq ever was."

Pointing out that in the past, Bush has called for more oil exploration, Lindsay notes that the call in the speech for less dependence on oil marks "a turnabout in the administration’s policy. The big question is whether the president has singled out the right policies for lessening dependence, and does he have the wallet to match the will? It is not clear."

What was your overall impression of President Bush’s State of the Union address last night?

President Bush gave a fairly predictable, straightforward State of the Union speech. It was long on a list of things to be done, and ultimately I think the speech was testament to his political weakness, and the constraints he faces, constraints in good part because of decisions he’s made over the past several years concerning foreign policy.

Can you be more specific on the constraints? I think people were struck, in particular, by his saying we can’t be so reliant on oil anymore.

There were a couple of interesting parts of the speech, in pure foreign policy terms. If you compare this speech in 2006 with, let’s say, the "axis of evil" speech back in 2002, the remarkable thing that comes to the forefront is the president seems much less forceful in talking about Iran and Iran’s nuclear weapons programs than four years ago. Much of that has to do with the fact that the United States, right now, has 140,000 plus troops in Iraq; there’s clearly a great deal of public unrest about how Iraq is playing out, which greatly constrains the president’s abilities in dealing with Tehran, even leaving aside the fact that Iran is a much more difficult issue than Iraq ever was.

The other interesting aspect on foreign policy was the president’s retreat, almost to the kind of language that came out of the 2000 campaign, trying to frame the choices in foreign policy between engagement, and isolationism and protectionism. I think the real debate for the American public isn’t about whether to be engaged in the world, it’s more a question of how to be engaged in the world.

He did what a president should do, which is to try to frame the debate in a way that most favors the policy he wants. It’s possible for people to be both critical of the president’s policies, and be for engagement in the world. And that was not an option that that speech recognized.

What about Iraq? More of the same?

Well, the president didn’t say anything new, certainly nothing new over the series of speeches he gave late last year. What we heard once again was the president emphasizing, rightly, the importance of success in Iraq, while also insisting that he has a strategy and a plan for winning, which is less clear.

Well let’s go back to oil. He talked about not being dependent on Middle East oil. As someone pointed out, right now the U.S. only gets about twenty percent of its oil from the Persian Gulf area. That’s a meaningless statistic in a way, because oil is so fungible. He’s been talking about getting hydrogen cells for cars for some time, but nothing much has happened. Do you think there’s any reason to expect anything different?

You’re quite right to say that what percentage of our oil we get from the Middle East is a meaningless statistic because oil is fungible; if we don’t buy it somebody else will. The broader question for the administration is: does it really have a strategy for lessening America’s dependence, or in the president’s word, "addiction," to oil?

A couple of observations immediately come to mind. Number one, America’s addiction to oil is nothing new. I can recall Richard Nixon giving speeches about ending our energy dependence, Jimmy Carter, and you can go on. And one of the questions you can raise, looking at the Bush administration, is to what extent the Bush administration is really arguing against itself. Its policies in the first four years didn’t really raise this as a priority, even though his arguments for lessening our oil dependence were just as compelling on September 12, 2001, as they are today. Indeed much of the administration’s policy in its first term was focused not on lessening our dependence on oil, but on finding new sources of oil in the United States, the whole Arctic wildlife drilling issue and what have you, a policy that critics have often labeled as "drain America first."

So in some senses you have a turnabout in the administration’s policy. The big question is whether the president has singled out the right policies for lessening dependence, and does he have the wallet to match the will? It is not clear.

By saying that we needed many more science and math teachers, was this his effort at getting at the globalization problems? I thought that was an interesting thing to stress in this speech.

The president is trying to speak to a public that is increasingly nervous and uncertain about the future of the economy. If you look at public polling data recently you see that only one in three Americans thinks the country is on the right track, and is optimistic economically. These are the lowest numbers preceding a president’s State of the Union address since President Bush’s father was running for reelection back in 1992.

Obviously, one of the great changes in the global economy is the entrance, in a very large way, of China and India. What does it mean for our standard of living? This is the president’s way of speaking to these issues, by talking about the importance of competitiveness, about having enough science and math teachers, and basic science research.

But again you come to a problem for the administration, which is that to do a number of these initiatives would require spending substantial amounts of money, but in the preceding section of the president’s speech, what he talked about and tried to take credit for was that the rate of growth of non-defense discretionary spending has been slowing under his watch (not that it’s been cut, but that it’s been slowing).

When you look at the overall macro-budget picture for the United States, if we are going to bring down the deficit and we aren’t going to raise taxes, two pledges the president has made, it’s going to be very hard to spend money on these discretionary programs. That’s where you get the problems of the mismatch between the will and the wallet. You have to spend some money to make these things happen, and that runs counter to the notion of trying to cut non-defense discretionary spending.

When we talked after his inaugural address, last year, in which the president spoke almost entirely on foreign affairs, on bringing democracy to the Middle East and so on, you called it a kind of Second Bush doctrine. He returned to that theme again last night. He didn’t seem at all deterred by the fact that Hamas had won in Palestine, which some critics were saying showed the emptiness of the democracy emphasis for the Middle East. What do you make of all this? He said he was still committed to bringing democracy to the Middle East. I guess you can’t go back at this point?

Well you know what the saying is, "You gotta dance with who brung ya." I think at this point the president can’t say, "Oh, never mind, I didn’t mean that."

There are a couple of interesting points to this speech. One is that the president and a couple of his predecessors before him in some sense oversold how successful democracy has been. He said there were about 122 democracies in the world. The number—in the sense most Americans would mean by democracy, meaning limited government, protection of individual rights—probably amounts to something like sixty countries. But give the president the more expansive number.

The president clearly didn’t gauge, in a clear way, the question of whether democracy could produce short-term, even long-term costs to American security. This is the big debate right now going over Hamas. From my own point of view, looking at the arguments, I think you are better off in the long term being on the side promoting democracy, than the side opposing it. In some cases I think when you think you can forestall democratic movements, what you get is tyranny that suddenly gives way to an even more difficult set of policies. I think the whole history of U.S. relations with Iran, where support for the Shah turned into the tyranny of the Ayatollahs, is clear on that point.

One of the interesting questions specifically about Hamas is going to be whether Hamas moderates its actual practice. Put aside its rhetoric, but its actual practice. And how competition is thought of between Hamas and any other entities within Palestine is going to change how they approach things. Because one of the good things about democracies, if you can sustain them, is that those in power become accountable for their decisions. My guess is most people going to the polls in Palestine were voting not on the basis of broad policy concerns, but local concerns of corruption, employment, the same sorts of concerns that motivate most people when they go to vote in most countries across the globe.

One of the responses from the international community is to say there are going to be significant costs to bad behavior, which is as it should be. We’re going to have to see how that plays out in internal Palestinian politics. I’m sure the administration would much prefer to have a democratic process in Palestine (or anywhere) that brings to power responsible, peaceful, cooperative governments. But one of the things we don’t have in democratic situations is control over the choices that individuals make. I think there are many more stories to play out over this.

Now on Iran, you said he didn’t get as strong on Iran as he could have been, but I thought he was fairly strong in the way that he said he hoped the people would get a free government. It was like calling for regime change without making any threats.

Well, what the president said in his speech was that America respects Iran. He told the Iranian people that he respects their country and hoped that one day we would be close allies. That was not really the tone of the 2002 "axis of evil" speech. I don’t think there was really a whiff or a hint in this speech that there were realistic military options in all of this. And I think the administration realizes that when it deals with Iran, it is somewhat constrained. And that it is clearly now, unlike in the lead-up to Iraq, going to play the diplomatic card, because that is the only card it has. It’s not that military options don’t exist. It’s that those options would be extraordinarily costly, and might not be productive in the long-term. So, it was in some senses much more conciliatory.

Now he was clear that he did not like the Iranian theocracy, but there’s nothing new there. The real problem you have with Iran when dealing with the issue of nuclear weapons is that many Iranians, whether they like the government or not, endorse the idea of the government getting nuclear weapons, partly because of the neighborhood they live in, partly for reasons of national pride, and because many Iranians would ask, why is it the Americans are telling us we can’t have these weapons when they have thousands of them?

Summing up, do you think the speech helped the president politically? I guess almost inevitably you get a rise in the polls a day or two after the speech.

Ultimately, this State of the Union speech, like most State of the Union speeches, was a wash for the president. Most Americans aren’t tuned in, aren’t listening carefully to the president. Obviously when you’re a president in the start of your sixth year, people are listening less closely than they were in your first year. You have fewer chances to create a new impression because people are in some sense used to you.

I do think the president has a problem going forward in that his public approval ratings have come down substantially, and the Democratic Party clearly feels much more comfortable trying to stand up to the president. Whether it has workable alternatives is a whole other issue. But we saw the willingness of the Democrats to challenge the president in the speech last night where he made sort of a self-deprecating remark about his Social Security program not going forward last year, and the Democrats all stood up and cheered wildly, wanting to take credit for it, and watching the Republicans sitting next to them, on the other side of the aisle, being very quiet about it.

But the president is quite right that there are some fundamental challenges out there on Social Security. And I think, even more broadly, there are real issues for the United States to confront on Social Security, on the whole entitlements issue, on overall economic competitiveness, on the ability to compete in the international marketplace, and ultimately on the question of dependence on oil, to not just run our economy but to fuel our society. Those are really at the base of American power. How well the president of the United States and the Congress of the United States work to address those problems will have long-term consequences for American power and American foreign policy.