Reactions to the State of the Union

Reactions to the State of the Union

Paul Saunders and Amitai Etzioni give their takes on President Bush's foreign policy remarks in the latest State of the Union Address.

Inside Track: The Fading Freedom Agenda
by Paul J. Saunders

President George W. Bush again described the war on terrorism as the "defining ideological struggle of the twenty-first century" in his State of the Union address. But his rhetoric made clear that the president's once-trumpeted "war of ideas" had taken a firm back seat to a "war of realities" in which the United States should have engaged long ago.

Most of the president's foreign-policy remarks focused by necessity on the war in Iraq, as Mr. Bush sought to claim credit for the success of the surge and-in deference to American domestic realities-to highlight the withdrawal of some U.S. forces from the country. And in a narrow sense, the surge has been the right strategy. The problem is that despite the president's admiration for former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the Bush administration has inadvertently proven one of Churchill's maxims about the United States-"you can always count on Americans to do the right thing-after they've tried everything else." Why from the beginning the administration didn't use more troops, and even more important, today's strategy of stabilizing the country and getting out, is the real question.

Also quite interesting was the fact that Mr. Bush talked not about promoting freedom but promoting "the hope of freedom" and leaving behind not a democratic Middle East, but "a more hopeful region." It's a far cry from the soaring rhetoric of his second inaugural address. (Which is not, by the way, as easy to find on the White House website as it has been in the past.) The ambitious post-WMD justification for the war in Iraq-freeing the Middle East-has been thoroughly deflated.

This new balance between promoting democracy and advancing America's traditional security interests was especially striking in the president's comments on Iran. After criticizing Tehran's support for Iraqi militias and Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists, Mr. Bush said

Our message to the people of Iran is clear: We have no quarrel with you. We respect your traditions and your history. We look forward to the day when you have your freedom. Our message to the leaders of Iran is also clear: Verifiably suspend your nuclear enrichment, so negotiations can begin. And to rejoin the community of nations, come clean about your nuclear intentions and past actions, stop your oppression at home, cease your support for terror abroad. But above all, know this: America will confront those who threaten our troops. We will stand by our allies, and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf.

In 2005, he "stood with" the people of Iran, but today he "has no quarrel with" them, respects them and "[looks] forward" to their freedom.

Many Americans, of course, will pay little attention to the nuances in the president's speech. But as voters think about their choices in 2008, they would do well to reflect on the lessons of the last seven years, not only in foreign-policy terms, but in evaluating what kind of leader America needs. Many criticized Mr. Bush for his lack of foreign-policy experience, and some candidates have touted their own experience as key strengths. While there is no doubt that experience can be useful, it provides no guarantees-as demonstrated by the president's experienced foreign-policy and defense team, including Vice President Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others. From this perspective, the ability to learn quickly, to incorporate new information, to change one's perspectives and to react to the rapidly shifting realities of our twenty-first century world, may be more important. One thing is certain: America cannot afford its next president spending seven years learning important lessons about our foreign policy.


Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Nixon Center and associate publisher of The National Interest.


Inside Track: State of Confusion
by Amitai Etzioni

President Bush's last state of the union replaces unrealistic democratic dogmatism with strategic and ideological confusion. This is especially evident in his statement about Iran.

Once upon a time, Bush held that it made no sense to expect or ask a rogue regime to change its behavior; such regimes could not be trusted. What was instead needed, he argued, was to make them into democracies-which do not wage war on one another. But as it turned out, such regime change is extremely difficult to come by. So the president is now willing to support oppressive regimes-as long as they give up their weapons of mass destruction and cease supporting terrorism. Merely a 180 degree turnabout.

This new tack, the one president Clinton followed in dealing with North Korea, has been very successfully applied in Libya. Tripoli stopped financing and arming terrorists and allowed the United States to dismantle-not just inspect-its WMD programs. But the country has made very little progress in terms of increased respect for human rights and opening up the political process. After some confusion and ambivalence, the Bush administration nevertheless removed Libya from the list of terrorist nations, lifted sanctions and basically welcomed it into the community of nations (although Washington continues to promote democratization by the use of nonlethal means). In dealing with the Libyans, the Bush administration adopted a pragmatism that valued stopping terrorism and rolling back WMDs over everything else-including promoting domestic political reform and democratization.

At this stage, the Bush administration is trying to make a similar deal with North Korea. If Pyongyang is truly willing to dismantle its nuclear military program, the Bush administration and its allies and partners are promising credits, fuel and other goods which would shore up the regime.

When it comes to Iran, however, the president is trying to have it both ways. Yesterday in the State of the Union, he asked the regime to both change its behavior ("come clean about your nuclear intentions," "cease your support for terror abroad") and engage in regime change ("stop your oppression at home") if it wanted to be readmitted to the "community of nations."

The mullahs have indicated on several occasions that they are willing to give up their nuclear ambitions if the United States signs a nonaggression treaty and otherwise shows that it will not seek to overthrow the government of Iran (again) by the use of force. By making liberalization of the regime-which to the mullahs means giving up power and all that they believe in-one of the prerequisites for allowing Iran to join the community of nations, Bush is torpedoing his own initiative. It shows what happens when you retreat from your old ideological position but have no clear overview of where you are headed.


Amitai Etzioni is Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and author of Security First: for a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy (Yale University Press, 2007).