Nancy E. Roman, who heads CFR’s Washington program, says she was impressed by President Bush’s push for energy conservation in his State of the Union address. On Iraq, the president “was virtually pleading with Congress to support the effort. Clearly there’s a resolution of disapproval bearing down on him, and he understands that ultimately he could even face the pressure of Congress cutting off funds for the troops.”
She also said she was struck by his relatively moderate tone toward Iran, which in the past he had labeled as a major member of the “Axis of Evil.” Roman speculated that Bush was aware of the strong opposition in Washington toward taking any military action against Iran.
What struck you in listening to President Bush’s State of the Union address?
Well, on the foreign policy front I thought the most interesting thing was that he was virtually pleading with Congress to support the effort [in Iraq]. Clearly there’s a resolution of disapproval bearing down on him, and he understands that ultimately he could even face the pressure of Congress cutting off funds for the troops. You could hear in his voice that he was saying, in effect, "Just give this a short while." I think the resolution of disapproval [nonbinding resolution introduced in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee] will move forward and pass.
It is set to move this week, and I think that’ll move forward. But if the Democrats were going to take a more aggressive tack I think you would see them carving out a small window of time [for the surge to succeed]. But I don’t think they want to be perceived as a party that is openly undermining the president. In other words, they might be skeptical the surge will succeed, but they certainly don’t want to be perceived as preventing it from succeeding.
The other thing I thought was interesting in the speech was all the push on energy. Of course we knew it was coming because most of it had leaked over the weekend, but I thought its breadth and depth was significant. It moved on all fronts, including CAFE [corporate average fuel economy] standards—which many in the Republican Party have traditionally been reluctant to approach, seeing [the standards] as an obstacle to free markets. The speech also addressed the development of automobiles, fuel imperatives, and some hard numbers about the goals for curbing gasoline consumption. Those were big moves, and there’s some room there for Democrats to work with the White House and actually develop some legislation that fosters changes in that arena.
Ethanol is a big American product right now. And I suppose in the farm lobby that’s a very, very popular product.
It’s a very popular product. But it was interesting that he called for alternatives to corn-based ethanol.
He talked specifically about switchgrass and other means of producing ethanol. They’re really throwing open the doors to competition in the free market for alternative energy.
It’s interesting that on other foreign policy issues he almost had almost nothing to say.
Yes, it was not a foreign policy speech. It was a domestic policy speech, and that makes sense because the administration’s foreign policy is extremely challenged. He’s got basically a year here before he’s in even deeper lame-duck status. Thus, the opportunities for progress are really on the domestic front. I thought energy was the most interesting because there’s the most room for legislative achievement there, and because it was bold, even for those of us who were expecting him to pursue that course.
He tried to open the door for negotiation, too, in the other two domestic priorities he raised—health care and immigration. That was less interesting simply because he made his immigration proposal last year and it received a warmer reception among Democrats in Congress than it did among Republicans. There is some chance for movement on immigration. On health care, I don’t think there’s very much chance of success. I view that as starting a conversation we very much need to have, because the costs of health care really pose a greater fiscal threat than the cost of Social Security or some of these other things that are discussed.
If he can get an immigration bill passed in collaboration with the Democrats it would be a major achievement since there was such opposition in the last Congress from the Republican side.
Yes, and I think there’s a chance that he could. That really comes down to capital. The Democrats would be willing to do it and Bush is clearly willing to do it, and if both sides really devote energy and time to push it over the finish line, it could happen. The amnesty provision is going to be the biggest stumbling block.
Right, he said again “No amnesty,” whatever that means. But obviously you can’t expel every single illegal immigrant from the United States.
No. But you can sort of look the other way. He focused on the temporary worker program that would allow people legally to come over to meet cyclical agricultural demands—picking crops and so on—and he said that would free up border agents to catch the bad guys, the terrorists and so forth. And he stayed away from talking about just how you would deal with the twelve million illegals currently in the country. If you look at other immigration plans, and other people who are in this space talking about it, one of the options on the table is frankly doing nothing. Nobody likes to word it like that, but that’s what they’re talking about. Not giving amnesty so you don’t get legal status, which, last time we [offered amnesty] with the Simpson-Mazzoli reforms of the 1980s, there was a big spike in illegal immigration after that.
The argument at the time, and I followed it pretty closely, was, “Listen, we’ll give amnesty this one time and now we’ve put in place all these reforms that will help us to do a better job at the border and we won’t have to tangle with this issue going forward.” In fact, there was a wave of illegal immigration following that. Many of the people are still around from when that bill was drafted, and people are less confident that you can actually get tight on the borders. And many people feel it would just attract further illegal immigration. But everyone agrees you can’t pack people up in the buses and send them home. And that’s why, to be honest, if you’re not for amnesty, to a certain degree I think you have to concede that you’re for looking the other way.
And how do you do that legally, look the other way?
Well, you don’t articulate it that way, but you just leave it unaddressed.
I think part of the plan would be employer sanctions. You come down on employers who hire illegals with hopes of curing demand, meaning demand for entry into this country, because if you don’t think you can find work it’s less attractive to come here. And then you hope to slow the flow that way. And you say there will be consequences for employers who hire illegals and you don’t pretend that you will pack them up and send them all home, and you don’t give them legal status.
I’m going to come back to foreign affairs once more. What also struck me is that he did mention Iran but only in passing.
It was interesting, because he’s being very careful with Iran. My sense is that his instinct is to be pretty aggressive with Iran but Congress has been explicit and so has the policy community in Washington. There’s not much appetite for a major military action of any kind towards Iran. And so I have a sense that he’s wanted to make the case of Iran as the bad actor. There were subtle references to Hezbollah and in the past he’s referenced Iran as aiding and abetting terrorists and so forth. He, of course, did mention their pursuit of nuclear weapons but he was careful not to overreach. I think that’s partly because he feels like he has time on that issue. For him, the priority is to get security in Baghdad and shore things up, and I think he feels if Iraq starts going better he might have more leeway on Iran.
No “Axis of Evil” in this speech.
No. And you know you can only speculate as to whether that was a response to individuals in Congress who had signaled pretty loudly there was no appetite for a military altercation with Iran. He’s at a moment in time where he very much needs Congress to support his foreign policy.
He made just a slight mention of North Korea in the context of seeking to get a denuclearized peninsula. There was no criticism stated of North Korea, per se.
Part of what happened to this administration over the course of the last six years is it has realized the limitations of its own leverage there. I think Bush in his heart does believe North Korea and Iran constitute an “Axis of Evil,” but you’ve been through six years of testing the limits of your leverage and you realize that China’s holding most of the cards vis-à-vis North Korea. Nobody really thinks privately that you can push North Korea to disarmament. It’s interesting because you engaged in this really tough rhetoric in the past and then it has had the effect of exposing the limitations of our power.
I did notice when he mentioned Iraq that he got the whole Republican side cheering. Was that to give him support?
Yes, but that was because, look, this is the president of the United States, we’re at war, and I don’t remember what specific line it was that had them on their feet, but it was something about supporting the troops.
That was early in his discussion on Iraq.
Republicans, even though I think many of them privately concede this surge approach is a real long shot, want it to succeed. They want the president to feel the weight of their overall approval and support for him as a commander-in-chief, even if they privately harbor doubts about the strategy. When I’m in off-the record-conversations with Republicans, there isn’t a lot of support for the current strategy, and it’s not because people don’t want to support the president, it’s because they lack the confidence the strategy can succeed. They’ve embraced strategies that haven’t produced success thus far, and for the people who take the time to wade into the details, it’s hard to get extremely confident that the deepening divide between Sunni and Shia in Iraq will suddenly go away.