Two weeks ago, President Bush was humble and somber as he explained his planned troop surge. In last night’s State of the Union address, his confidence seemed to have returned. He even looked a bit younger.
Of course, last night the stakes were much lower.
The laundry list of domestic initiatives that Bush rattled off may or may not be good ideas. (David Hogberg tries to untangle some of them here.) But the fact is that the bills that pass Congress this term won’t be Bush’s. The best he can hope for is to influence Democratic bills, and his record suggests he can’t even be relied on to consistently push to the right. As far as domestic policy is concerned, it’s Nancy Pelosi’s world — Bush just lives in it.
The foreign policy half of the speech was low-pressure for the opposite reason: The Democrats can stomp their feet all they want, but they are not going to do anything to change policy in Iraq. They got elected this November by being political creatures, and to defund the war at this point would be political suicide. The public is pessimistic about the prospects of Operation Iraqi Freedom, but the mood of the country is not yet so dark that leaving the Iraqis to slaughter each other is a winning position.
The public, of course, is the real target of Bush’s pleas to Democrats, for the Democrats will make their stop-the-war move as soon as it polls well enough. Can Bush keep it from doing so?
He made a good effort last night. Even as he acknowledged that free elections in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon in 2005 gave way to violence in all three countries in 2006, the President made clear that his commitment to keeping political reform in the Middle East at the center of American foreign policy remains unshaken. And the picture he paints of the enemy has gotten both more vivid and more subtle over the years. Last night, he made a point to distinguish Sunni and Shia terrorists, and to underline their Janus-like nature:
Al Qaeda and its followers are Sunni extremists, possessed by hatred and commanded by a harsh and narrow ideology. Take almost any principle of civilization, and their goal is the opposite….
These men are not given to idle words, and they are just one camp in the Islamist radical movement. In recent times, it has also become clear that we face an escalating danger from Shia extremists who are just as hostile to America, and are also determined to dominate the Middle East. Many are known to take direction from the regime in Iran, which is funding and arming terrorists like Hezbollah — a group second only to al Qaeda in the American lives it has taken.
The Shia and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat. Whatever slogans they chant, when they slaughter the innocent, they have the same wicked purposes.
Bush is pointing the finger at Iran at a time when some Democrats are talking seriously about taking steps to prevent an attack on that country’s nuclear program. Emphasizing that the Iranian government is very much our enemy is always helpful, lest those reassurances to the mullahs become too socially acceptable.
The key line of the speech referred to the troop surge, and once again it was directed not so much at the Congress but at the public — 68% of whom, according to the latest Newsweek poll, oppose the surge. Bush’s message to them: “Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq, and I ask you to give it a chance to work.”
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