Bush’s Last State of the Union

On January 28, President George W. Bush gave the last State of the Union address of his two-term tenure. Many of his remarks centered on foreign policy. FPIF’s Stephen Zunes annotates the president’s claims and statements.

“On trade, we must trust American workers to compete with anyone in the world and empower them by opening up new markets overseas. Today, our economic growth increasingly depends on our ability to sell American goods and crops and services all over the world. So we’re working to break down barriers to trade and investment wherever we can.”

The record at this point is quite clear that free trade has hurt American workers. The resulting lower tariffs has made it easier for transnational corporations to shut down manufacturing facilities in the United States and take advantage of cheap labor, lower taxes, and weaker worker safety and environmental standards in foreign countries. This has contributed directly to the decline in economic growth in the United States and the real income of American workers in recent years. Meanwhile, through U.S.-backed structural adjustment programs imposed by international financial institutions and other measures, wages and government spending in most countries of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are kept low. As a result, there is not enough money left for foreign consumers to spend on U.S.-manufactured goods that could make up for U.S. losses in wages and tax revenues from the runaway shops.

“These [free trade] agreements also promote America’s strategic interests. The first agreement that will come before you is with Colombia, a friend of America that is confronting violence and terror, and fighting drug traffickers. If we fail to pass this agreement, we will embolden the purveyors of false populism in our hemisphere. So we must come together, pass this agreement, and show our neighbors in the region that democracy leads to a better life.”

Though Colombia holds competitive elections, it hardly provides its Latin American neighbors a very good model for “democracy” or “a better life.” There is indeed a lot of violence and terror directed at the Colombian government and its supporters, but the U.S.-armed Colombian government is itself guilty of violence and terror as well. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported a “steep rise in reports of extrajudicial executions by the Colombian military” in recent years and months, making this a particularly inauspicious time for Congress to approve a free trade agreement with that repressive government. Amnesty also reports how Columbia has become “one of the most dangerous places in the world for trade unionists,” who are routinely murdered by government forces and government-backed death squads, raising questions as to why Congress should support “free trade” with such an unfree country in which labor rights are so severely repressed.

“The United States is committed to strengthening our energy security and confronting global climate change. And the best way to meet these goals is for America to continue leading the way toward the development of cleaner and more energy-efficient technology.”

If the United States were really concerned about climate change, the Bush administration would sign and support binding agreements to reduce greenhouse emissions. Currently the United States is the only advanced industrialized country that has failed to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol. The United States would also dramatically scale back its military operations and basing throughout the globe, which contribute enormously to carbon emissions. In addition, U.S. foreign aid would primarily support the development of appropriate technology and sustainable agriculture that stresses self-sufficiency rather than help facilitate the massive carbon-emitting international trade of commodities that can be produced locally. Furthermore, rather than subsidize giant corporations for dubious capital-intensive oil-substitution projects, the Bush administration needs to get serious about dramatically increasing federal support for public transportation, encouraging conservation efforts, and backing the development of renewable sources of energy.

“In the long run, men and women who are free to determine their own destinies will reject terror and refuse to live in tyranny. And that is why the terrorists are fighting to deny this choice to the people in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Palestinian Territories. And that is why, for the security of America and the peace of the world, we are spreading the hope of freedom.”

The Bush administration has been doing more than the terrorists to set back the hope of freedom and deny people the right to determine their own destinies. Bush has been an outspoken supporter of Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf – who has brutally suppressed pro-democracy demonstrators, censored the press, fired independent judges, rigged elections, and jailed human rights activists – subsidizing his tyranny with billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars. In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. forces have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. They have denied these countries’ democratically elected governments their sovereign rights to determine the nature and scope of U.S. military operations inside their borders, to prosecute criminal activity by those working under U.S. contracts, or to pursue economic development and trade policies of their choosing. The United States is the principal military, financial, and diplomatic supporter of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory seized in the 1967 war and has refused to pressure Israel to allow for the establishment of a viable independent Palestinian state. The United States was the world’s key supporter of Israel’s 2006 assault on Lebanon, which resulted in the deaths of more then 800 civilians and billions of dollars in damage to the country’s infrastructure, and is currently applying heavy pressure on the country’s more conservative parties to block efforts to compromise with opposition groups to form a sustainable representative coalition government.

“While the enemy is still dangerous and more work remains, the American and Iraqi surges have achieved results few of us could have imagined just one year ago. When we met last year, many said that containing the violence was impossible. A year later, high profile terrorist attacks are down, civilian deaths are down, sectarian killings are down.”

Terrorist attacks and sectarian killings are down, but they are still alarmingly high. Such terrorist attacks and sectarian killings were not happening at all prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. So it is odd that – to the sound of bipartisan applause – President Bush is taking credit for the recent, and likely temporary, drop in such violence. It is also unclear as to whether the “surge” or any Bush administration policies during the past year have contributed to the lessening slaughter. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was responsible for much of the sectarian killings and terrorist attacks, has seen its operational capabilities eroded primarily by Sunni tribal leaders who have focused their militias for an indefinite period on defeating the transnational organization, a decision that took place six months prior to the launch of the surge. Furthermore, another reason for the decline in sectarian violence – which had been the leading cause of civilian deaths in the past couple of years – has been a consequence of the ethnic cleansing and displacement of millions of Iraqis from mixed neighborhoods, many of whom are now in walled-off communities behind fortified gates, which can hardly be considered a positive development.

“When we met last year, militia extremists — some armed and trained by Iran — were wreaking havoc in large areas of Iraq. A year later, coalition and Iraqi forces have killed or captured hundreds of militia fighters. And Iraqis of all backgrounds increasingly realize that defeating these militia fighters is critical to the future of their country.”

The decline of militia violence cannot necessarily be attributed to U.S. policy. Rather, the reduction has come about as a result of decisions made independently by the leading Shiite groups, which had been largely fighting each other, to observe a ceasefire and settle their differences by other means. Sunni militias – which have never been armed and trained by Iran and which are responsible for the vast majority of attacks on U.S. forces – are still active.

“Ladies and gentlemen, some may deny the surge is working, but among the terrorists there is no doubt. Al-Qaeda is on the run in Iraq, and this enemy will be defeated.”

Not only have al-Qaeda’s setbacks been a result, not of the surge, but of Iraqis themselves turning against them, al-Qaeda has always represented well under 10% of the insurgents fighting U.S. forces. Polls show that a majority of Iraqis – both Sunni and Shiite – see the United States as an occupier rather than a liberator and approve of attacks against U.S. forces. Such popular resistance to the U.S. military presence in their country raises serious questions about having that kind of confidence in a military victory.

“When we met last year, our troop levels in Iraq were on the rise. Today, because of the progress just described, we are implementing a policy of “return on success,” and the surge forces we sent to Iraq are beginning to come home.”

U.S. military commanders have made it clear for some time that American forces simply can not sustain the current level of combat troops in Iraq and that there would need to be a withdrawal to pre-surge levels at this point regardless of the situation on the ground. The current drawdown had been planned many months ago as there are insufficient fresh forces available to sustain the escalated troop levels.

“… a failed Iraq would embolden the extremists, strengthen Iran, and give terrorists a base from which to launch new attacks on our friends, our allies, and our homeland. The enemy has made its intentions clear. At a time when the momentum seemed to favor them, al Qaida’s top commander in Iraq declared that they will not rest until they have attacked us here in Washington.”

It was the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq that emboldened extremists, strengthened Iran, and provided terrorists a base of operations in that country. There was no radical Islamist insurgency in until after the United States invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003. Similarly, there was no “al-Qaeda in Iraq.” That group was formed only after the U.S. invasion. And, except for a tiny enclave in the Kurdish region outside of Baghdad’s control, there were no base for Islamist extremists prior to five years ago. A recent National Intelligence Estimate, based on analysis of all 16 of America’s intelligence agencies, revealed that the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation and counter-insurgency campaign had actually increased the threat to the United States from Islamic terrorism and had become the primary recruiting vehicle for a new generation of extremists from the Arab world and beyond. The longer the United States stays in Iraq, then, the greater this threat will grow.

Despite similar claims during the Vietnam War that “if we don’t fight them over there we’ll have to fight them here,” the Vietnamese fighting U.S. forces did not move the battlefield to America once U.S. troops got out of their country. The Afghans fighting Soviet forces did not move the battlefield to Russia when the Soviets got out of their country. Similarly, the Iraqis fighting U.S. forces will not move the battlefield to America once we get out of their country. It is the ongoing occupation of Iraq by U.S. forces, the bombing and shelling of Iraqi cities, the torture of Iraqi detainees, and the chaos and destruction inflicted on that ancient land as a result of the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation that is prompting the insurgency. The U.S. war in Iraq is creating terrorists faster than we can kill them.

“Tehran is also developing ballistic missiles of increasing range, and continues to develop its capability to enrich uranium, which could be used to create a nuclear weapon.”

Bush makes it sound like Iran is the only country in the region to pose this kind of threat. Yet Iran’s neighbors Israel, Pakistan, and India already have nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, with no objections from the Bush administration, which provides these countries with billions of dollars worth of weapons to increase their offensive military capabilities. While Iran’s nuclear capabilities and missile development are subjects of legitimate concern, they can only be realistically addressed in the context of regional disarmament efforts, not demands by the United States for Iran to halt their programs unilaterally.

“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.”

If this is really true, why hasn’t the Bush administration apologized for the 1953 U.S. overthrow of Iran’s last democratic government and the critical role of U.S. security assistance and training for the repressive and autocratic regime of the Shah for the quarter century that followed? The United States has historically demonstrated little regard for Iranian traditions, history, or freedom.

“Our message to the leaders of Iran is also clear: Verifiably suspend your nuclear enrichment, so negotiations can begin.”

Why must Iran unilaterally suspend its enrichment program before negotiations can begin? Virtually every successful negotiations to end a country’s potential for developing nuclear weapons – including the one ending Libya’s nuclear program in 2003 – involved some kind of quid pro quo and were not subjected to such unilateral pre-conditions. Iran offered to end its enrichment program more than four years ago in return for an end of U.S. threats against its regime and normal relations, similar to the deal worked out with the Libyans. But the Bush administration refused.

“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.”

This is a clear threat of war against Iran, made all the more chillingly real by the bipartisan cheers that followed this statement. This comes despite the fact that virtually every claim and reported incident by the Bush administration regarding alleged Iranian threats to U.S. forces in Iraq and the Persian Gulf have later been shown to have been false or grossly exaggerated.

“Protecting our nation from the dangers of a new century requires more than good intelligence and a strong military. It also requires changing the conditions that breed resentment and allow extremists to prey on despair. So America is using its influence to build a freer, more hopeful, and more compassionate world. This is a reflection of our national interest; it is the calling of our conscience.”

This noble calling is not supported by the facts. By virtually any measure, there has been an increase in repression, despair, and intolerance in the world since Bush launched the “war on terror” and the invasion of Iraq, as the United States and other countries have diverted their resources towards military spending and away from meeting human needs, as governments around the world have used security rationales to crack down on civil liberties, and as xenophobia and religious extremism has grown as a result.

“We support freedom in countries from Cuba and Zimbabwe to Belarus and Burma.”

The United States should indeed support freedom in those countries, yet Bush has been curiously silent about supporting freedom in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Oman, Equatorial Guinea, Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Kazakhstan, Chad, Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, and other countries suffering under repressive regimes kept in power in large part through billions of dollars worth of U.S. arms transfers and security assistance. As long as the U.S. government only goes on record supporting “freedom” in countries whose repressive governments oppose U.S. hegemony while propping up other repressive governments that support U.S. hegemony, this double-standard makes it easier for the regimes of these targeted countries to depict the genuine freedom movements challenging their rule as agents of the United States.

“This month in Ramallah and Jerusalem, I assured leaders from both sides that America will do, and I will do, everything we can to help them achieve a peace agreement that defines a Palestinian state by the end of this year.”

Rather than doing “everything we can,” the Bush administration rejects taking the necessary steps to make peace possible. It has refused to insist on a full Israeli withdrawal (with possible minor and reciprocal border adjustments), an end to Israeli colonization in the occupied territories, and the acceptance of a shared co-capital of Jerusalem. Nor has Bush even demanded that Israel engage in confidence-building measures, such as a putting a freeze on the expansion of settlements, ending its siege of Palestinian cities and the construction of its illegal separation barrier deep inside the occupied West Bank, and releasing Palestinian prisoners not involved in terrorism.

President Bush was asked at a press conference during his recent Ramallah visit why the United States refused to insist that Israel abide by a series of UN Security Council resolutions addressing the outstanding issues in the peace process. He responded by proclaiming that “the choice was whether to remain stuck in the past, or to move on.” This was necessary, according to the president, because “the UN deal didn’t work in the past,” ignoring the fact that these earlier UN efforts failed as a direct result of the United States blocking the Security Council from enforcing its resolutions regarding Israel’s international legal obligations.

Bush has rejected calls by the international community that the conflict must be settled on the basis of international law, which forbids the expansion of any country’s territory by force. The United States has ignored the kind of settlement called for in the longstanding UN Security Council resolution 242 and recognized by previous presidents as the basis for Arab-Israeli peace. Instead, the Bush administration has opted to use as its starting point the status quo based on Israel’s 40-year occupation. This underscores the longstanding and inherent contradiction between the United States simultaneously playing the role of chief mediator in the conflict and being the chief military, financial, and diplomatic supporter of the more powerful of the two parties. As a result, Israel, the occupying power, has little incentive to compromise, and the relatively powerless Palestinians under occupation have little leverage to advance their struggle for an independent viable state.