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Last Updated: Monday, 30 January 2006, 12:58 GMT
Viewpoint: In search of a clear view of Bush
Justin Webb
By Justin Webb
BBC News, Washington

On the eve of President George Bush's annual State of the Union speech, the BBC's Justin Webb scrutinises his international agenda.

President Bush
An unbiased view of the president's record can be hard to find

I was hearing the other day about a woman who went to the White House Christmas drinks party.

You are allowed to bring a friend and the two of you get to pose for a 10-second photo-op (they call it a "grip and grin") with the leader of the free world.

But this woman had no friends available that evening and queued up to see him alone. When her turn came she explained to the president, "I couldn't get a date."

With a charm and wit worthy of Ronald Reagan he pulled her close and asked - mock earnestly - "Nothing I've done I hope?"

He knows what you think of him (particularly if you are reading outside the US).

In a BBC radio programme a few weeks ago I defended the Bush White House... The response was furious and instructive

But what does he think of you, and what does he have planned to make your life more enjoyable?

He says he loves you - at least those of you who don't harbour terrorists.

And in some ways he does, though people have a hard time accepting it.

Furious response

In a BBC radio programme a few weeks ago, I defended the Bush White House; pointing out that the president's Christian conservative base had successfully pressed for real engagement to combat the many tribulations of life in Africa

Tsunami victim
US aid to tsunami victims was more prompt than that of other nations
I also said that, after the Asian tsunami, the Bush team had given aid more promptly and more generously than some other players on the world stage, including some much closer to the scene of the disaster.

The response was furious and instructive. From all around the British Isles, Bush-haters wrote in.

I had crossed a line in the sand: it is acceptable to defend the US to snooty Europeans (well, almost) but never to show any sympathy for the "toxic Texan" and his sinister doings.

Yet as the world prepares to confront Iran over its nuclear ambitions it seems to me that an unprejudiced view of where the president is coming from, of what he has in store, is more important than ever.

He says he loves us all and he says he loves freedom - believes in its power, its civilising influence.

Is he fooling us? Will he bin this boyish enthusiasm for free votes when the going gets tough?

Doctrine has beef

I think not. This is a man capable of seizing new ideas. A man who knows what it is like to maintain a course in spite of temptations along the way.

Still the president is sticking to his guns. His view is that 'death to America' is an inadequate political philosophy once freedom comes and government beckons

Of course in the real world he is nowhere near as unyielding as he would have his more credulous supporters believe.

With China for instance, the Bush administration has gone through the motions of demanding greater political and religious freedom but you know, and the Chinese know, that economic issues are far more important in Sino-US relations than political ones.

The same is the case with the Russians.

But even with those caveats it is still the case that the Bush Doctrine has beef. It is not devoid of content.

And for those who want to taste that beef, well the moment is at hand, the moment for the president's bluff to be called, if bluff it is.

Marxist subtext

The world is witnessing the early results of the Bush push on democracy, and in the Middle East there is a trend which is now impossible to ignore, even in the capital city of a nation where Iran and Iraq are frequently confused.

Iranian nuclear facility
Expect tough rhetoric on Iran in the State of the Union speech

Americans are beginning to notice that freedom - to the extent that it has taken hold - has given Islamic religious groups an opportunity to tout their wares in the democratic marketplace.

And the buyers have been queuing around the block , all the way from Baghdad to Cairo, via the West Bank and Gaza.

Even among those clinging to secular autocracy - Syria for instance - there is rising tide of Islamic resistance spurred at least in part by the policies of the Bush White House.


Still the President is sticking to his guns. His view is that "death to America" is an inadequate political philosophy once freedom comes and government beckons.

He will not talk to Hamas but he still backs the process by which the group has come to power. And if he is right, Hamas will be changed by the experience.

Quite how that change happens is left to nervous state department people to explain.

They talk about democracy leading to a reduction in "identity politics" and in the longer term to the building of coalitions built around economic interests.

A fascinating Marxist subtext to the Bush masterplan.

Whether they are right, of course, is another question. But they believe (hope?) it is true.

Power of freedom

And what of the world's greatest looming crisis: the showdown with Iran over its nuclear programme? The president will allude to it in his speech on Tuesday but do not be fooled by tough rhetoric.

Would a military attack on Iran or the imminent threat of one lead to happiness among the soccer mom voters of suburban America?

The White House is sometimes, lazily and wrongly in my view, seen as being in the vanguard of efforts to biff the Iranians. It is not.

In fact it is a legitimate criticism of the Bush team that they have been diplomatically dozy while this threat has gathered, leading to a situation now where some Democrats have started to outflank the president and call for tougher measures against Iran than the administration is yet willing to countenance.

In fact the main focus here is still on Iraq - and the key political objective has to do with elections, though not Iraqi ones.

It is the November US mid-term polls that concern the White House now - polls where they could lose control of both houses of Congress to the opposition Democrats.

That would play havoc with the president's ability to follow his own timetable in Iraq and to do what he wants to do elsewhere, so nothing now must interfere with getting the Republicans, battered as they are by recent events at home and abroad, safely back into power on Capitol Hill.

Would a military attack on Iran or the imminent threat of one lead to happiness among the soccer mom voters of suburban America?

Would the sudden rise in oil prices associated with really tough sanctions be cheerfully borne by SUV drivers from sea to shining sea?

Forget about it. Nothing will happen until November is done, whatever the president says on Tuesday.

And as for Hamas: the first of its leaders to renounce violence gets a White House tour and a trip to the Texas ranch. That is the power of freedom.

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