[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 February, 2005, 09:26 GMT
World seeks clues in Bush speech
The BBC's Jill McGivering
By Jill McGivering
BBC state department correspondent

President Bush's State of the Union address is eagerly awaited, not least because many are still trying to work out what his inauguration address, with its grand rhetoric of freedom and liberty, actually means in practical terms.

George W Bush delivers his second inaugural address
Bush's inauguration speech was long on rhetoric, short on details
The State of the Union should fill in some of those gaps between vision and implementation.

It's often said that in a second term, US presidents become more firmly focused on their political legacy.

That can involve a transitional shift, away from broad, often idealistic ambitions to more readily realisable goals.

But so far, President Bush's grand vision has shown little sign of being tempered by first-term knocks. If anything, it's been expanded.

The difficulties in Iraq are self-evident, from the continuing insurgency and growing US fatalities to the failure to find weapons of mass destruction.

But instead of responding with a less ambitious vision, the president has merely re-characterised it.

Eyes on Iran

Iraq has moved from being (albeit contentiously) about tackling al-Qaeda and eliminating Saddam Hussein's WMD threat to being an exercise in spreading freedom.

Success in Iraq has been redefined to mean its emergence as a beacon of democracy to inspire and engender the spreading of freedom throughout the Arab world.

As the president expressed it with some enthusiasm at his recent White House press conference, his administration has "firmly planted the flag of liberty" in Iraq.

Technicians at work at Iran's Isfahan nuclear facility
Iran's nuclear programme is considered a possible US target
The implication is that more flags will follow, although where and how has so far stayed vague.

Much of the speculation has centred on Iran. The administration's rhetoric on Iran markedly increased in both volume and vitriol last summer.

Pragmatists say it's unthinkable for the president to consider a military option.

Targeted strikes as a way of incapacitating Iran's nuclear programme are impractical, they argue, given the lack of reliable intelligence and decentralised sites.

Any grander military plan is unrealistic when US forces are already overstretched - and would be extremely difficult to sell to an increasingly war-weary American public.

The president's recent comments that his vision was "a work in progress" and "there won't be instant democracy" across the region added a note of reassurance.

Relations with Europe

The president's handling of Iran is also a litmus test of the new much-heralded US-European rapprochement.

The importance of mending alliances with Europe is likely to feature prominently in the State of the Union address.

Condoleezza Rice testifies at her Senate confirmation hearing
Rice's trip to Europe may help rebuild strained relations
Since the president's re-election, this too has become a second-term mantra.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell travelled through Europe in December to offer an olive branch, although it came with a caution that the US expected the Europeans to respond if they wanted the transatlantic rift to mend.

On her first day as Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice announced plans to travel to Europe the day after the State of the Union.

Her major policy speech, said officials, would be in France, a venue some might call the lion's den of European scepticism about the Bush administration.

She will also be preparing the ground for President Bush's own trip to Europe later in February.

It's the first overseas travel of his second term and the fact he chose Europe is in itself an overture.

Willing to listen

Europe does seem ready and willing to make up. British Foreign Minister Jack Straw and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer were the first to cross the Atlantic to pay their respects to Ms Rice and both emerged oozing words like "constructive", "positive" and "friendly".

The tone has certainly changed. But there's still little sign of actual agreement on issues of common anxiety.

The US has consistently distanced itself from the diplomatic efforts of the EU-3 (UK, France and Germany) to solve Iran's nuclear dispute through negotiation and has repeatedly and publicly expressed scepticism about the likelihood of diplomatic progress.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas
The new Palestinian leader is being seen as an opportunity
The US still maintains that punitive action through international sanctions, not diplomacy, is the only answer.

The greatest hope lies with the Middle East peace process.

Here Europe and the US may be able to work together more convincingly, with European allies rallying the Palestinians on such key issues as reining in militancy while the United States applies pressure on Israel to be responsive and consider re-entering formal negotiations in return.

The US is already throwing its full diplomatic weight into the project.

The administration seems determined to re-start the stalled peace process and make the most of the so-called opportunity presented by the change of Palestinian leadership.

Pressing ahead

Condoleezza Rice has said publicly that she will be closely involved - and that she sees this as a high policy priority.

She plans to travel to Israel and the West Bank at the end of her first foreign trip, after visiting Europe.

William Burns, the head of the State Department's Near East (ie Middle East) Department quietly preceded her, holding talks the week before with Europeans and Russians, then travelling on to the Middle East to explore options with the Israelis and Palestinians.

There has also been speculation that Ms Rice might attend the London-based conference of Palestinian leaders and supporters on 1 March.

Some suggest her attendance might be a positive gesture of even-handedness from an administration often accused of pro-Israeli bias.

Korean concerns

And then there's the rest of the world... With so much preoccupation with the Arab world, will the Bush administration have any time and energy left?

Some analysts argue that the nuclear crisis in North Korea is more unpredictable, potentially dangerous and more advanced than that of Iran and yet the US is responding far less actively.

The six-party talks, which Washington hails as the only appropriate forum, have been in a state of utter stagnation for six months now.

The US insists it is ready to return to the table at any time, as soon as Pyongyang signals its willingness to rejoin the process.

But, with Pyongyang so far refusing to return, the US is offering nothing else.

That lack of flexibility and of momentum could prove dangerous, all the more so if the president in his second term is too preoccupied with one part of the world to notice a crisis deepening in another.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific