Bush’s SOTU: Annotated

President George Bush gave his 2007 State of the Union address on January 23. While the speech covered many domestic issues, Bush also laid out his foreign policy approach to Iraq, Iran, terrorism, and democracy promotion. Excerpts from the president’s speech are in italics; my comments follow.

“Al-Qaida and its followers are Sunni extremists, possessed by hatred and commanded by a harsh and narrow ideology. They want to overthrow moderate governments, and establish safe havens from which to plan and carry out new attacks on our country.”

Al-Qaida and like-minded Sunni extremist groups have generally not targeted moderate governments, but have instead focused their efforts against repressive governments, such as the family dictatorships of the Gulf, the Mubarak regime in Egypt, and the Karimov dictatorship in Uzbekistan. Since its inception, al-Qaida has principally targeted Saudi Arabia, a repressive theocratic monarchy that has no constitution or legislature, oppresses women, denies religious freedom, and engages in widespread torture and extrajudicial killings. In any case, unlike traditional guerrilla groups for whom a safe haven for operations is critical, al-Qaida operates through a decentralized network of underground cells and does not need to control any government to organize terrorist operations.

“By killing and terrorizing Americans, they want to force our country to retreat from the world and abandon the cause of liberty. They would then be free to impose their will and spread their totalitarian ideology.”

No public statement by al-Qaida or any of its recognized leaders has ever criticized the United States for supporting liberty. Instead, they have criticized the United States for supporting dictatorial regimes and occupation armies that deny liberty. And, whatever their grievances, there is no serious risk that the United States will retreat from the world. The current debate is whether the United States should continue to exert its power unilaterally through military means or to be a more responsible global citizen that works multilaterally and honors its international legal obligations. And, even if the United States did suddenly pursue an isolationist posture, scores of other countries would do whatever was necessary to prevent al-Qaida from imposing its will or spreading its totalitarian ideology.

“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-Qaida 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. They want to kill Americans … kill democracy in the Middle East … and gain the weapons to kill on an even more horrific scale.”

It is grossly misleading to equate these Shia groups with al-Qaida: Hezbollah and a number of other Shia groups do receive Iranian support and do embrace an extremist ideology but—unlike al-Qaida—they are focused primarily on advancing the interests of the Shiite communities in their respective countries and do not have a global terrorist agenda. In addition, rather than trying to “kill democracy in the Middle East,” it was Shia groups that overcame initial American objections to successfully push for direct elections in Iraq and it is Shia groups that are currently pushing for greater democracy in Bahrain against the U.S.-backed Sunni monarchy. Extremist Shiites have killed Americans in Lebanon and Iraq, but only after American troops intervened in their country and began counter-insurgency campaigns that killed large numbers of civilians. Hezbollah has not killed any Americans in well over 20 years—they stopped not long after U.S. troops withdrew from their country—and has since become a legal Lebanese political party that has successfully competed in Lebanese elections. Furthermore, unlike al-Qaida—which has sought chemical agents and other material for mass killings—there are no indications that any Shiite groups have sought such weapons.

“This war is more than a clash of arms—it is a decisive ideological struggle, and the security of our Nation is in the balance. To prevail, we must remove the conditions that inspire blind hatred, and drove 19 men to get onto airplanes and come to kill us. What every terrorist fears most is human freedom—societies where men and women make their own choices, answer to their own conscience, and live by their hopes instead of their resentments. Free people are not drawn to violent and malignant ideologies—and most will choose a better way when they are given a chance. So we advance our own security interests by helping moderates, and reformers, and brave voices for democracy. The great question of our day is whether America will help men and women in the Middle East to build free societies and share in the rights of all humanity. And I say, for the sake of our own security … we must.”

This is an accurate assessment of the roots of terrorism, yet there are no indications that President Bush is considering a change in U.S. policy from its ongoing military, diplomatic, and financial support of more than a dozen dictatorial regimes in the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa. Indeed, all of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other U.S.-backed regimes that repress human freedom, governments that still receive billions of dollars worth of American support for their police and military.

“In Iraq … a tragic escalation of sectarian rage and reprisal … continues to this day. This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in. Every one of us wishes that this war were over and won. Yet it would not be like us to leave our promises unkept, our friends abandoned, and our own security at risk. Ladies and gentlemen: On this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. So let us find our resolve, and turn events toward victory.”

Many Iraqis and Western observers repeatedly warned the Bush administration that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would likely unleash the very kind of sectarian conflict that has unfolded. Prior to the U.S. takeover, Iraq had maintained a longstanding history of secularism and a strong national identity among its Arab population despite its sectarian differences. U.S. occupation authorities—in an apparent effort to divide and rule—encouraged sectarianism by dividing up authority in the U.S.-appointed provisional government based not on technical skills or ideological affiliation but ethnic and religious identity. This pattern has continued under subsequent governments, resulting in virtually every political question debated not on its merits but on which group it potentially benefits or harms. This has led to great instability, with political parties, parliamentary blocs, and government ministries breaking down along sectarian lines. Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority has long identified with Arab nationalism and distrusts much of the Shiite leadership in large part because they came to power as a result of the U.S. invasion, and some extremists within the Sunni opposition have targeted Shiite civilians in response. Seeing their government faced with a growing insurgency and their community falling victim to terrorist violence, elements within the Shiite-led government have responded by utilizing death squads to target Sunni civilians, with U.S. forces unable or unwilling to stop it. In other words, U.S. policy has contributed greatly to the sectarian violence and is not likely to reverse it. As a result, most Iraqis—both Sunni and Shiite—want U.S. forces out of their country. Indeed, the presence of American forces is fueling the insurgency and is helping to undermine the legitimacy of the government. As a result, it is not a matter of “resolve,” but whether ongoing U.S. military operations in Iraq are doing more harm than good.

“We are carrying out a new strategy in Iraq … we are deploying reinforcements of more than 20,000 additional soldiers and Marines to Iraq. The vast majority will go to Baghdad, where they will help Iraqi forces to clear and secure neighborhoods, and serve as advisers embedded in Iraqi Army units. With Iraqis in the lead, our forces will help secure the city by chasing down terrorists, insurgents, and roaming death squads.”

Most reputable accounts indicate that the Iraqi armed forces are not yet in a position to lead American forces in counter-insurgency operations, particularly given the high level of infiltration by supporters of both Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents. In any case, as with most guerrilla wars against foreign occupation armies, most of the fighters live at home or are otherwise capable of melting into the population and laying low until the army completes its sweep and they can then resume fighting. An additional 20,000 troops in a city of over five million is not likely to clear and secure many neighborhoods for more than a very short period of time.

“And in Anbar province—where al-Qaida terrorists have gathered and local forces have begun showing a willingness to fight them—we are sending an additional 4,000 United States Marines, with orders to find the terrorists and clear them out. We did not drive al-Qaida out of their safe haven in Afghanistan only to let them set up a new safe haven in a free Iraq.”

Elements allied with al-Qaida only represent a tiny fraction of the insurgency and no al-Qaida operative from Afghanistan has ever been captured or positively identified in Iraq. Most of the insurgency in Anbar consists of homegrown Sunni Islamists, tribal groups, Baathists, and other nationalists. Except for a tiny enclave in the autonomous Kurdish region outside of Baghdad’s control, there were virtually no al-Qaida-affiliated activities in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003. It is the presence of U.S. forces that has resulted in the emergence of whatever al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists do exist in Anbar and elsewhere in Iraq.

“If American forces step back before Baghdad is secure, the Iraqi government would be overrun by extremists on all sides. We could expect an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran, and Sunni extremists aided by al-Qaida and supporters of the old regime. A contagion of violence could spill out across the country—and in time the entire region could be drawn into the conflict. For America, this is a nightmare scenario. For the enemy, this is the objective. Chaos is their greatest ally in this struggle. And out of chaos in Iraq, would emerge an emboldened enemy with new safe havens … new recruits … new resources … and an even greater determination to harm America. To allow this to happen would be to ignore the lessons of September 11th and invite tragedy. And ladies and gentlemen, nothing is more important at this moment in our history than for America to succeed in the Middle East, to succeed in Iraq, and to spare the American people from this danger.”

Baghdad was secure from Islamic extremists—both Sunni and Shiite—under the secular regime that the United States overthrew in 2003. Under Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian rule, Iraq was free from chaos, and the successful UN-sponsored disarmament effort had prevented Iraq from threatening other countries in the region. That an American invasion could unleash forces that would foment chaos in Iraq and threaten the stability of the region was widely predicted beforehand. For example, in September 2002, Arab foreign ministers in Cairo issued a warning that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would “open the gates of hell.” As a result, it is ironic that Bush now uses the very chaos and the rise of Islamic extremism for which he was responsible as an excuse for continuing the war he started. Studies from both U.S. government agencies and independent research institutes indicate that the ongoing U.S. war in Iraq—not the prospect of withdrawal—has led to growing anti-Americanism and Islamic radicalism. The longer the United States continues to prosecute the war in Iraq, the greater the danger to the United States.

“The war on terror we fight today is a generational struggle that will continue long after you and I have turned our duties over to others. That is why it is important to work together so our Nation can see this great effort through. Both parties and both branches should work in close consultation. And so I propose to establish a special advisory council on the war on terror, made up of leaders in Congress from both political parties. We will share ideas for how to position America to meet every challenge that confronts us. And we will show our enemies abroad that we are united in the goal of victory.”

The decision in October 2002 by the leadership of both parties in both houses of Congress to authorize President Bush to invade Iraq at the time and circumstances of his own choosing demonstrates the danger of working in close consultation with the Bush administration. Congressional Democrats—even when they are in the majority, as they were in the Senate at the time of that fateful vote—tend to buckle under pressure from the administration on foreign policy. Indeed, the Democratic leadership has ruled out trying to force a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq through cutting funding for the war—the only real tool at their disposal. And it looks as though they will even fail to block funding for the proposed increase of U.S. combat soldiers fighting in Iraq despite polls showing a majority of the American public would like them to do so. Even if Democrats on such an advisory council did actually display some independence from the Bush administration on policy issues, they will not likely be listened to anyway, given President Bush’s failure to heed the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission and the Baker-Hamilton Commission.

“The United Nations has imposed sanctions on Iran, and made it clear that the world will not allow the regime in Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons.”

Meanwhile, the United States has blocked the UN from imposing sanctions on Pakistan, Israel, and India despite those countries’ ongoing violations of UN Security Council resolutions related to their nuclear weapons programs. In addition, the Bush administration severely weakened international non-proliferation efforts by entering into a nuclear cooperation agreement with the Indian government despite that country’s ongoing defiance of UN Security Council resolution 1172, which calls on India to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

“With the other members of the Quartet—the UN, the European Union, and Russia—we are pursuing diplomacy to help bring peace to the Holy Land, and pursuing the establishment of a democratic Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel in peace and security.”

In reality, President Bush has undermined peace efforts by the UN and European governments by insisting that the Palestinians unilaterally implement their obligations under Phase I of the Quartet’s Road Map instead of the original emphasis on mutual and simultaneous efforts by both sides. The Bush administration has also blocked international efforts to stop Israel’s ongoing colonization of large swathes of the West Bank (in violation of a series of UN Security Council resolutions) and Israel’s construction of a separation barrier deep inside the occupied territory (in violation of a ruling by the International Court of Justice). The Bush administration has also vetoed a series of UN Security Council draft resolutions calling on Israel to end its ongoing violations of international humanitarian law in the occupied Palestinian territories. As a result of these Bush administration policies, the Israeli government has been able to move forward with its U.S.-backed “convergence plan” in which Israel would be able to annex large sections of West Bank territory, leaving the Palestinians in control of a series of non-contiguous cantons surrounded by Israel and constituting well under 20% of historic Palestine. Such an economically unviable mini-state, closely resembling the infamous Bantustans of apartheid South Africa, would not likely be able to live in peace and security with Israel.

“We will continue to speak out for the cause of freedom in places like Cuba, Belarus, and Burma.”

Unfortunately, the administration refuses to speak out for the cause of freedom in places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Azerbaijan, Oman, Cameroon, Kazakhstan, Chad, or the many other countries ruled by allied regimes that engage in gross and systematic human rights abuses. By only speaking out in support of freedom in countries with autocratic governments the administration does not like but remaining silent in regard to autocratic governments the Bush administration supports, it politicizes the human rights struggle, replaces principle with political expediency, and compromises the struggle for freedom worldwide.

Stephen Zunes is the Foreign Policy In Focus Middle East editor (www.fpif.org). He is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003).