Bush’s last stand

STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS

He will try to convince America that he has a grip on the Iraq crisis.

US PRESIDENT George W. Bush will be making his last stand.

His State of the Union address on Tuesday night (Wednesday morning Singapore time) could make or break his presidency. And the pivotal issue is none other than Iraq – where much of his legacy will hinge on.

Mr Bush will also try to shore up his domestic base with a slew of measures aimed at a war-weary public and a feisty Congress controlled by Democrats for the first time in 12 years.

But it is foreign policy that will have greater political undercurrents in his annual speech to Congress.

Under his presidency, the US faces its most demanding strategic environment since the Berlin Wall collapsed – and arguably since the end of the Cold War. Along with other pressing issues, North Korea, Iran and especially Iraq will dominate the last two years of his administration.

Two weeks after announcing a last-ditch strategy on Iraq, he will have another chance to use the bully pulpit.

He will have to convince sceptical Americans who have given him one of the lowest approval ratings in post-war history.

The nearly four years of conflict in Iraq has come at a terrible cost to the United States: more than 3,000 soldiers killed, a ballooning war budget, declining morale in the armed forces and rising anti-Americanism abroad. Mr Bush – and America’s international prestige – have taken a beating.

He will attempt to salvage this in his speech by seeking to demonstrate that he is in control of his country’s destiny in Iraq.

Administration officials suggest that the State of the Union will not be a repeat of the Iraq speech on Jan 10. Rather, Mr Bush will speak in broader terms about the need to defeat extremists, which is a major problem in Iraq.

This line seems vaguely familiar, however: If terrorists succeed in Iraq, the enemy will become more confident and dangerous – and Americans more vulnerable at home.

As he rehearsed drafts of the speech at the weekend at the Camp David presidential retreat, he will be conscious of his immediate audience in the Capitol building that sits atop a shallow knoll topped by a giant dome. In the grand halls of The Hill, legislators wield immense power.

The Senate has already passed a non-binding resolution rejecting the President’s plans for more troops in Iraq. And a storm is gathering in the House.

Mr Bush is known, however, more for his strength of fortitude than caving in under pressure. So expect a hard headed and combative response to the Democrats – and a growing number of Republican detractors.

But having said that, he will also attempt to find “common ground” with the new Congress, knowing that the Iraq conundrum is no bridge builder.

At the same time, he will be aiming to appease his Republican Party that will be looking ahead to next year’s presidential election.

White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said: “President Bush will outline issues where he believes we can find common ground with the new Congress. Both parties share many of the same goals for the people they serve.

“We can find practical ways to advance the American Dream and keep our nation safe without either party compromising on its principles.”

Focusing on domestic issues could help him achieve these objectives.

On the cards are proposals for tax deductions and health-care benefits.

According to reports, immigration and education will also rank high on his priority, along with the need to balance the budget.

As in his previous addresses, Mr Bush will also call for greater use of alternative energy sources to reduce America’s “addiction to oil”.

Something new will be a policy on global warming, but he is unlikely to agree to any limits on carbon emissions.

These issues, however, will have less of an impact on his legacy than Iraq. Positive legacies in foreign policy are a rare thing. Dr Kim Holmes of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation noted that some presidents leave nothing behind. Others bungle things, making the country worse off.

He argued that those who achieved the most success grasped the essence of crisis and rose to the occasion to meet it. Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower did this when they established the containment strategy that lasted for a generation.

The late Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush did the same when they won the Cold War.

All of them shared one common trait: They used the bully pulpit with great effect.

America’s 43rd president will attempt to do so in his penultimate State of the Union, but history will determine whether he has left it too late.

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