January 31, 2008
On January 29, President Bush delivered his eighth and final State of the Union Address before Congress. Various news reports locked on the President’s emphasis on economic policy and the war in Iraq. A Washington Post analysis saw the President’s speech as cementing his legacy as President by “consolidating past achievements and focusing strategically on where he can win a few more.”
My analysis will focus on the national security issues in his speech which are not limited to Iraq, but also to domestic wiretapping program, democracy promotion, Afghanistan, Iranian policy, and the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. I decided to make this my focus, not only because of my personal interest in foreign policy and security issues, but also due to the importance the President attached to them: out of the 5,764 words delivered to Congress, 2,390 of them directly address these topics, or about 41.5% of the text.
I begin with Iraq. President Bush touted the following “accomplishments” as a result of the so-called “surge”:
- Al-Qaeda terrorists were being cleared out of neighborhoods
- Reconstruction is taking place
- The success of Sunni “awakening” groups fighting Al-Qaeda
- Terrorist attacks and civilian deaths are down
- Sectarian killings are down
- Hundreds of Shi’a militiamen are captured or killed
These successes are largely tactical and easily reversible. Credit for reduction in violence is given to the surge although it is not necessarily deserved; Al-Qaeda is largely being driven out of some areas by Sunni tribes armed and paid the US (which has its own risks), Sadr’s six-month ceasefire (set to expire very soon) was voluntary, and the sectarian cleansing—sped up, not slowed down by the surge—has achieved its deadly goals. In other words, it’s putting perfume on a pig.
Furthermore, these developments are not being supported by crucial deeper security, political and economic reforms. According to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, Bush has only met 3 of 18 crucial “benchmarks”, none of which are the important ones needed to ensure long-term stability in Iraq. The political progress has been minimal at best. While President Bush touts the de-baathification law as a success, groups like the International Center for Transitional Justice say it actually makes things worse. Reconstruction efforts also have a long way to go. Despite recent gains made, security is still not good enough to allow the pace of reconstruction proceed to quicken. Important infrastructures like Mosul dam are in serious need of repair, expensive American contractors like Parsons and Bechtel are failing to do their jobs, and corruption is still rampant within Iraq’s ministries. Although billions of dollars are thrown at Iraq each month, it is a prime recruiting tool for terrorists and has become a risky distraction from other urgent threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The President also seems to be fond of citing NATO’s assistance in Afghanistan and claiming that more kids going to school, but the Afghan ministry of education reported the number of Taliban attacks on schools has tripled since last year, school closings have almost doubled, and 300,000 students aren’t attending class due to security concerns. NATO’s forces are undermanned and struggle to get more troops, they have been taking heavy casualties (some proportionately higher than the US), carelessly inflict many civilian deaths, and have difficulty holding onto any gains made against militants. This is not to forget that Afghanistan’s own security forces are not suitable for combat and economic development is still slow and inefficient. All of these factors leave Afghanistan and NATO ill-prepared for a new Taliban spring offensive.
Bush also mentions Afghanistan’s neighbor, Pakistan, but only fleetingly. This is interesting since there’s been such a hullaboo in Western media over the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and concerns over Islamabad’s nukes falling in the hands of Al-Qaeda/Taliban. Of course these two things are very nasty side effects of a large American strategic failure of being “wedded to Musharraf despite growing warnings from experts”. This unholy matrimony is consummated by billions of dollars in unaccountable American military aid meant to fight Taliban militants siphoned off to purchase large weapons systems to counter India. The administration’s policy “alternative” has been to support “democrats” like the recently deceased Bhutto, and Nawaz Sharif who are emblematic of Pakistan’s long-standing feudal political culture. There might be some reprieve in sight for Pakistan as rifts within Taliban may weaken them in the long run. However, Bush must realize that long-term stability is not won on the battlefield, but through a viable long-term policy of supporting democracy and real civil society actors.
Then of course there’s Iran. Despite the recent NIE report (PDF) stating that Iran has suspended its nuclear program since 2003, Bush’s continues to peddle the image of Iranian political leadership as hell-bent on remaining an international pariah. However contrary to what Bush and his neoconservative advisers may think, Iran, like any other nation, acts as a rational state actor affected by both international forces and domestic politics. While Bush cites Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah, he forgets that he bears significant responsibility for that. According former top administration officials, back in 2003 in secret negotiations, Tehran explicitly expressed its willingness to cease support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, suspend its nuclear program and recognize Israel. Nevertheless Bush continues to pursue a confrontational stance toward Iran through immoral and counterproductive sanctions that punish the Iranian people instead of the state. Ahmadinejad and the mullahs have been destroying their own economy for a long time and don’t need our President’s help. If anything economic engagement and free trade agreements that put the power of the purse back in the hands of the Iranian people and away from the Mafioso-like control of the clerics’ corrupt and inefficient bonyads would be more helpful in advancing the cause of liberty.
Turning to Palestine and Israel, the President seems content to forge ahead with a half-baked peace process initiated at Annapolis in order to achieve “a Holy Land where a democratic Israel and a democratic Palestine live side by side in peace.” As with Iran, his bombastic prose is based on a myopic ideology dismissive of crucial facts and lacking in nuance. His attempt to achieve this lofty goal without the necessary inclusion of Hamas and by relying on the politically weak Mahmoud Abbas is foolhardy. Since its inception in 1987 Hamas’ has been continuously evolving, (PDF) attempting to balance ideology with political pragmatism, which includes its most recent attempts at secret negotiations with Israel. By not noticing these continuous changes and excluding Hamas from talks, Bush sets back peace in the Holy Land further and helps Israel shoot itself in the foot by perpetuating its brutal occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Finally turning to a more domestic focus, Bush mentions the successes made in stopping certain terrorist attacks such the transatlantic aircraft plot and the US library tower plot. He uses those two examples to argue for why Congress should make the Protect America Act a bill that legalizes wiretaps without court oversight permanent and include immunity for telecoms that helped Bush’s earlier illegal wiretapping. However the unaccountable domestic wiretapping powers Bush seeks had nothing to do with stopping the foreign plots. This isn’t the first time Bush has used irrelevant examples to mislead people into thinking these unchecked powers will help make America safer. If anything the evidence shows unaccountable spying powers would make us not only less free, but less safe too.
In sum, the President’s State of the Union Address was very disappointing, though not surprising. Full of half-truths, spun facts and missing pieces of information, his discussion of security issues were only colorful words that had little truth or substance behind them. It was just another disappointing speech summarizing a disappointing two-term legacy.
Alejandro J. Beutel
Minaret of Freedom Institute