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Wednesday, 30 January, 2002, 20:23 GMT
State of the Union Address: Ask the BBC's Stephen Sackur

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On 29 January, US President George W Bush gave his first State of the Union address, warning that the war on terror was only just beginning.

President Bush wants to allocate an extra $48bn to fight the war against terror, fund missile defences, pay for precision weaponry, and boost the pay of members of the armed services.

He is also planning to almost double the amount America spends on "homeland security", providing increases to areas such as the police and fire services - and the intelligence effort.

In the light of the US recession, do you think President Bush should raise defence spending?

Former BBC Washington correspondent Paul Reynolds put your questions to BBC Washington correspondent Stephen Sackur in a forum on 30 January.


The topics discussed in this forum were:

  • Bush's popularity
  • Other issues being sidelined?
  • Future military targets
  • American policy in the Middle East
  • Human rights in Camp X-Ray
  • Reactions from Iran and Iraq
  • Constitutional issues

    Bush's popularity


    Newshost:

    Jeff Dorsey, New Haven, Connecticut, USA: Do you think that Bush would be as popular without the crisis in Afghanistan and the troubles with the terrorists?


    Stephen Sackur:

    That's quite an easy one - I think the answer is no he would not be as popular. If you look at where Bush stood in terms of the opinion polls, popular standing on September 10th, he was certainly a figure that roused partisan emotion and the country was split. At the time it looked as though there was pretty much a 50-50 split both on the Democrat/Republican question and many people had doubts about some of the central planks of George Bush's political agenda. In particular, for example, his desire to cut taxes and make that the central theme of his economic policy and his effort to get America out of recession.

    But September 11th changed everything. He now has unprecedented popular approval ratings. He's in the 80% range - perhaps even higher and has sustained that sort of level of popularity ever since September 11th, making him perhaps the most popular president in modern American history. There is no doubt that is entirely connected to his conduct of the war - the way he has carried himself in the last five months under terrific pressure.

    The Americans like what they've seen of this President under pressure. Clearly the war in Afghanistan has gone well - the Taleban regime has been completely destroyed and removed. The Americans on the whole believe that the al-Qaeda terror network has been severely disrupted even though Osama bin Laden has not yet been captured or killed. So if you add all of that together, there is no doubt that George Bush has enjoyed a massive boost to his standing here in the United States because of what happened on September 11th and his decision to conduct this war against global terrorism.

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    Other issues being sidelined?


    Newshost:

    Tim Jackson, USA: Bush spent half his speech scaring people about terrorists then followed it by immediately saying he needed more money to keep fighting the evil terrorists. Aren't important social and environmental concerns fading to black amid blind, flag-waving patriotism?


    Stephen Sackur:

    Obviously a lot of that is subjective - what that questioner calls scaring the American public, I think George Bush would describe as telling it like it is. One of the themes with the State of the Union speech from the President was to warn Americans not to fall into complacency - not to believe because the war has gone relatively well in Afghanistan that things can return pretty much to normal. This President clearly believes that's not the case, that they are simply at the beginning of a very long struggle against not just terrorist networks but also terrorist-supporting states.

    It was significant that he described this axis of evil - and he named three states in particular; North Korea, Iran and most particularly Iraq, which he says are actively developing weapons of mass destruction and which must be confronted by the United States and its allies. So this is no small business for George Bush. He takes this existential threat seriously and clearly he is massively boosting the defence budget - the biggest spending increase in military affairs for the last two decades - we are talking about perhaps 50 billion new dollars for the military.

    The questioner is right in that there was barely a mention of many environmental and social issues but I think that's because priorities lie elsewhere. I think you have to see this as more a State of the Union speech from a commander-in-chief than a peacetime President. This was very much a speech made during what is perceived, by this administration, to be a war.

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    Future military targets


    Newshost:

    Dan, UK/USA: Did I hear him correctly? "Iran, Iraq and North Korea an axis of evil" and "time is not on our side". Does this mean an imminent large-scale war?


    Stephen Sackur:

    I think that's a good question and you heard him correctly. He did name those three states and talked about this axis of evil and implied very clearly that action at some point will have to be taken if these countries continue to develop weapons of mass destruction as the Americans believe they are continuing so to do. As the question indicates - what is America going to do? And I think it is much less clear. It's clear that they believe there's a problem - much less clear that they know what the solution is.

    Certainly on Iraq, while there's much talk here in Washington, particularly amongst the so-called "hawks" inside the administration, many of them in the defence department, about confronting Iraq soon and doing it with real military force. This would be with not just pinprick strikes but actually undertaking military action, including use of ground forces that would remove Saddam Hussein's regime from power.

    While all of that is fine talk, but it's hard to see, at the moment, an American willingness to undertake that kind of massive military operation. It would be costly in every sense of that word and there is no evidence that there is a meaningful Iraqi opposition that the Americans can rely on in the short term, as they relied on the Northern Alliance. That is a big problem here because many people, although they want to believe that the Iraqi National Congress is the kind of opposition they could work with to bring down Saddam Hussein, there are real doubts about whether that group is sufficiently reliable and sufficiently strong.

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    American policy in the Middle East


    Newshost:

    Mohammed Hawsi, London, UK: I stayed up late to watch that excellent Bush speech. But he did not mention anything about why terrorism hates America and what he should do about America foreign policy to the Middle East. Why was that?


    Stephen Sackur:

    Good question - difficult answer from the Bush team's perspective. They don't want to get involved in a debate about US Middle East policy. While many others around the world do believe that one of the fundamental root causes of the deep anger, frustration and resentment that is seen in many quarters in the Muslim world and the Arab world in particular, is precisely because of the way the US runs its Middle East policy and in the end its unflinching military and financial support of Israel. While many across the world see that as something that you cannot remove from the equation of international terrorism.

    The Americans don't see it that way. They believe that being dragged into a debate about Middle East policy would be very dangerous. It would, in a sense, be a form of moral equivalence - allowing the terrorists some sort of a victory. So they're not going to engage in that kind of a debate. George Bush only mentioned the Middle East in passing simply to condemn groups like Hammas - the Palestinian Islamic militant group - and Hezbollah, who he called terrorist groups that must be eradicated.

    So that's where the Americans stand. At the moment they are focused entirely on what they call this war on terrorism. They are not prepared to reconsider in any way their Middle East policy and you can absolutely guarantee that there will be no shift in their fundamental strategic alliance with Israel.

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    Human rights in Camp X-Ray


    Newshost:

    A text message from Sam in Ipswich, UK: President Bush said much about human rights and respect for religion and fails to mention human rights of the untried detainees in camp X-ray.


    Stephen Sackur:

    He didn't mention them and there is a very interesting debate within the Bush administration about how to handle this issue. It has become more difficult than I think President Bush assumed it would be when he declared in mid-January that these detainees were not covered by the Geneva Convention - still less were they prisoners of war as defined by the Geneva Convention. It has become more complicated.

    There is now a debate in the administration - what George Bush refers to as legalisms, but they are actually rather important - about whether the Geneva Convention applies to these prisoners. There is no debate about them being prisoners of war - nobody in the administration believes that that's what they should be called - they are described as unlawful combatants. But even unlawful combatants, many argue, should be covered by the Geneva Convention. So it has become difficult and while George Bush says that this war is all about defending basic human dignity, human rights, freedom and democracy, it does become a little sensitive when one looks at the way the Americans have conducted this treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and I don't think we've heard the last of that story. It may be legalistic but in the end it does matter as to how these people are defined and the US Government is still working on it.

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    Reactions from Iran and Iraq


    Newshost:

    John K, Ohio, USA: Interesting speech. I feel that Iraq and Iran have been served due notice. How do you think those countries will react to this speech?


    Stephen Sackur:

    With a great deal of rhetorical fire - they will be angry. I think the Iranians might even be somewhat surprised that they were tarred with the same brush as Iraq because since September 11th there has been some sort of a tacit effort and understanding on both sides that they would not see any worsening of their relations at a time when America's focus was on Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and the more overt war on terrorism. Some even believed that there might be the possibility of some sort of rapprochement between Tehran and Washington. Well, I think, George Bush's speech has put an end to that - at least for the time being - and the Iranians will be angry about that. They will also be angry to be described as a terrorist state with no democratic institutions because that, I think, simply isn't true. There is a form of democracy in Iran although it certainly isn't the kind of democracy that the Americans recognise.

    As regards Iraq - we know that George Bush wants to see the end of Saddam Hussein, he's made no secret about it - the question is how to do it and that's where it gets very difficult for the Americans.

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    Constitutional issues


    Newshost:

    CG, USA: What are the constitutional implications, of the federal effort to intensify domestic security? It seems that Federal authority, appropriate to war-time, is being imposed when there's been no declaration of war under the constitution.


    Stephen Sackur:

    There have been some very interesting efforts by the Attorney-General, John Ashcroft, in particular, to assume new powers. To tap telephones with more sweeping powers, to arrest people and to use the terror label to keep detainees. Also the whole Guantanamo Bay episode and the way in which these detainees have been held and described as terrorists and threats to national security and may even in the end face special military tribunals rather than civil criminal courts or the accepted usual courts martial. So there are lots of interesting things going on at that level.

    Many people believe that constitutional issues have been brought up by the way the Bush team has handled for example the mass arrest of young Arab Americans in a sort of acknowledged racial profiling to try and find contacts to terrorists inside the US. Many people are saying that saying that constitutional rights have been invaded. But the Bush team says it's careful not to do that and in the end the first priority has to be protecting the citizens of this country and doing it by pushing the envelope but not, in their view, undermining the constitution.

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