The State of the Union: A Focus on the Middle East

Report Middle East

The State of the Union: A Focus on the Middle East

February 3, 2005 6 min read

Authors: James Phillips and James Carafano

In some ways, consistency, not change, marked the approach to foreign and national security policy laid out by President Bush in his State of the Union address. That's good-particularly in regard to U.S. policy towards Iraq. America faces strategic challenges. And good strategy requires hard choices and the determination to follow through. The President made the difficult decisions on the course of U.S. policies in his first term. This State of the Union address was an expression of his commitment to finish the job. The Administration and Congress must focus their efforts over the next year on ensuring that the instruments of national power are resourced, organized, and focused on carrying through on the President's priorities.


In terms of vision, however, the President's speech set a bold and ambitious agenda, following up on the broad theme of expanding freedom in the world that he set forth in his inaugural speech two weeks ago, proclaiming that his ultimate goal was "ending tyranny in our world." He provided greater specifics as to what the United States sought to accomplish in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other theaters of the global war against terrorism, and he provided moral clarity but not a policy blueprint for the administration's foreign policy over the next four years, reasserting that "The only force powerful enough to stop the rise of tyranny and terror, and replace hatred with hope, is the force of human freedom."


Iraq dominated the foreign policy half of the speech, as expected. But there was surprisingly little discussion of foreign policy issues outside the Middle East, suggesting that the President has concluded that events in the Middle East, the chief battleground in the war against terror, will be the prime determinant of his presidential legacy.


Bush stressed the multilateral nature of U.S. foreign policy, noting that 28 countries have provided ground troops in Iraq, sixty countries have cooperated with his Proliferation Security Initiative, and 11 countries have captured Al Qaeda terrorists. He promised to continue building coalitions to defeat the "dangers of our time."


Iraq: Results, Not Artificial Timetables

On Iraq, Bush radiated strength and confidence: "We will succeed because the Iraqi people value their own liberty as they showed the world last Sunday." This reference to Iraq's January 30th elections, which enjoyed a higher-than-expected voter turnout, received one of the largest ovations of the night and led many in Congress to display index fingers dipped in ink, as a sign of solidarity with Iraqis who defied terrorist intimidation to cast their votes.


At one moment during the speech, the President introduced the parents of a fallen marine, and the mother reached over, her son's "dog tags" dangling in hand, to hug an Iraqi voter who had been introduced moments before. As the two women embraced, the chain of the tag hooked the young women's dress, and for an awkward instant they were linked together-a symbol of the linking of two nations through the service and sacrifice of American soldiers and a reminder of how the future of both nations is bound together.


Bush correctly rejected calls from critics for an "exit strategy" and a timeline for the withdrawal of American troops. The debates over exit strategy are inside-Washington politics at its most senseless. In fact, the President's plans for Iraq are quite close to what the critics want. All agree that establishing effective Iraqi security forces, moving the Iraqi political process forward, and pressuring countries like Syria (which has facilitated the insurgency operations based within its borders) are the most pressing tasks to be accomplished. And that's what the administration is doing. Exit strategies and timelines make for interesting cocktail chatter, but they are irrelevant. U.S. forces can and will withdraw as soon as Iraqi forces can take over the domestic security mission. 


Beyond Iraq

The President reaffirmed his belief that the ultimate security of the United States rests on living in world in which America is part of a family of peaceful and productive nations. He also renewed his pledge to apply all the instruments of America's power to that end-and use each appropriately. Military force, as in the case of Iraq, will only be used in defense of vital U.S. interests. Elsewhere, the United States will instead rely on the instruments of peace to advance the cause of freedom.


Implementing the President's vision will require following through on U.S. policies and continuing to reshape the government institutions so that they can effectively meet the challenges of the 21st century. In particular, the Defense Department must continue to transform the American military, and the State Department must restructure its public diplomacy and foreign assistance programs. Meanwhile, Congress must provide the resources to finish the job in Iraq and prepare the instruments of national power for the tasks ahead.


Ratcheting up Pressure on Syria and Iran

Bush warned that the United States must confront all regimes that harbor or support terrorists and singled out Syria for particular attention: "We expect the Syrian government to end all support for terror and open the door to freedom." This is likely to presage much greater American pressure on Damascus to halt its support of terrorism against Israel, withdraw its army from Lebanon, and cut ties to the insurgency in Iraq.


Iran also received a stern warning, although Bush stressed that the United States is working with its European allies to find a diplomatic solution to end the threat posed by Iran's nuclear weapons program. But Bush undoubtedly set the ayatollahs' teeth on edge when he spoke to the Iranian people over their heads: "As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you." It is in Iran where Bush's promise to support the expansion of freedom is most likely to resonate.


Bush also demonstrated a willingness to challenge American allies to give greater freedom to their people when he called on Egypt and Saudi Arabia to make greater commitments to democratic reform. But he made clear that the United States does not want to impose its own model of democracy but instead to help build "governments that answer to their citizens and reflect their own culture."


Significantly, one of the few new policy initiatives that took concrete form in the speech was the President's request for Congress to approve $350 million in aid to support Palestinian democratic reform. This is a major departure from the cold shoulder that Washington gave to the Palestinian Authority while it was dominated by Yasser Arafat, who died in November. It indicates that the Administration will embrace and support newly-elected Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in an effort to prod Palestinians to abandon Arafat's disastrous legacy of terrorism and corrupt authoritarian rule. This aid package, along with Bush's dispatch of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to meet with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, signals that the Administration will make reinvigorating Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations a much higher priority in its second term.


All in all, the President's State of the Union speech was an upbeat and optimistic approach to the Middle East. President Bush has sought to put the United States in a position to swim with the current of history towards greater freedom, which has liberated most of the Soviet bloc, but has made relatively little progress in the Middle East thus far. The President made clear that he recognizes that this will be a long campaign in the war of ideas when he quoted Irish poet Arthur O'Shaugnessy: "Each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth."[1]


James A. Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies, and James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Defense and Homeland Security, in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] The last verse of the poem "Ode" refers to ancient cities in Iraq and reads in full:


We, in the ages lying

In the buried past of the earth,

Built Nineveh with our sighing,

And Babel itself with our mirth;

And o'erthrew them with prophesying,

To the old of the new world's worth;

For each age is a dream that is dying,

Or one that is coming to birth.


James Phillips

Former Visiting Fellow, Allison Center

James Carafano
James Carafano

Senior Counselor to the President and E.W. Richardson Fellow