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Bush stresses on fear factor

By Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
February 01, 2006 13:16 IST
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President George W Bush reiterated his winning re-election strategy of concentrating on the fear factor in his annual State of the Union speech. He focused on national security issues, the global war on terror and the imbroglio in Iraq, hoping for a boost of his approval ratings, which are at the lowest ever and the worst for a US president since the Watergate scandal during the tenure of the disgraced President Richard Nixon.

In his 50-minute speech, Bush -  beset by the protracted war in Iraq, that has taken over 2,200 American lives and injured at least 15,000 more, his perceived inept response to Hurricane Katrina that ravaged the country's Gulf Coast, and the indictment of senior White House official Scooter Libby - led with the war in Iraq, national security issues and the fight against the Al-Qaeda terrorism network, which consumed as much as half of his remarks.

The passion that he showed in speaking of these foreign policy issues, clearly seemed to dissipate when he got on to the domestic issues. 

Although he did reach out to the Democrats with conciliatory rhetoric, it seemed to be a case of going through the motions and trying to recapture his image as a compassionate conservative, albeit any chances that any of his initiatives on education, healthcare, etc will see the light of the day, largely because there is no money for these programs in the wake of unprecedented deficits that continue to soar.

Taking on those who have called for a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, Bush, while acknowledging that 'those of us in public office have a duty to speak with candor', however warned that 'a sudden withdrawal of our forces from Iraq would abandon our Iraqi allies to death and prison, would put men like bin Laden and Zarqawi in charge of a strategic country, and show that a pledge from America means little'.

"Members of Congress, however, we feel about the decisions and debates of the past, our nation has only one option," he argued. "We must keep our word, defeat our enemies and stand behind the American military in this vital mission."

Bush said that 'our country must also remain on the offensive against terrorism here at home. The enemy has not lost the desire or capability to attack us'.

He then made a strong pitch for the reauthorisation of the Patriot Act, which many members of the Congress and civil rights groups believe compromises the civil liberties and constitutional rights of the American people. 

He also went on to defend the controversial surveillance and phone-taps being carried out by the National Security Agency, which was recently revealed by a whistle-blower and has led to charges that the President was violating laws on the books that say such surveillance can only be carried out with a warrant from a judge.

"It is said that prior to the attacks of September 11, our government failed to connect the dots of the conspiracy," he said. "We now know that two of the hijackers in the United States placed telephone calls to Al-Qaeda operatives overseas. But we did not know about their plans until it was too late."

Thus, Bush asserted that 'to prevent another attack - based on authority given to me by the Constitution and by statute - I have authorised a terrorist surveillance program to aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected al Qaeda operatives and affiliates to and from America'.

He said that 'the terrorist surveillance program has helped prevent terrorist attacks', and made a case that 'it remains essential to the security of America. If there are people inside our country who are talking with Al-Qaeda, we want to know about it, because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again'.

Bush acknowledged that 'no one can deny the success of freedom, but some men rage and fight against it. And one of the main sources of reaction and opposition is radical Islam - the perversion by a few of a noble faith into an ideology of terror and death. Terrorists like bin Laden are serious about mass murder - and all of us must take their declared intentions seriously. They seek to impose a heartless system of totalitarian control throughout the Middle East, and arm themselves with weapons of mass murder'.

As expected, there was also the railing against Iran and the emergence to power of the radical Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Washington has designated Hamas as a terrorist group and said it would not deal with it unless it forswears violence and accepts Israel's sovereignty, which is does not in its charter.

Bush said that Iran is now a nation 'held hostage by a small clerical elite that is isolating and repressing its people. The regime in that country sponsors terrorists in the Palestinian territories and in Lebanon and that must come to an end. The Iranian government is defying the world with its nuclear ambitions, and the nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons. America will continue to rally the world to confront these threats'.

Then, speaking directly to the Iranian people, he declared, "America respects you and we respect your country. We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom. And our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran."

Bush started off his speech by condoling the passing away of Coretta Scott King, the wife of the late civil rights leader, Rev Martin Luther King, saying, "Today our nation lost a beloved, graceful, courageous woman who called America to its founding ideals and carried on a noble dream. Tonight we are comforted by the hope of a glad reunion with the husband who was taken so long ago, and we are grateful for the good life of Coretta Scott King."

Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International and an ABC News analyst, appearing on an ABC News Special on the President's State of the Union, in offering his post-mortem, opined that it was 'in many ways - the foreign policy section - the kind of greatest hits of George Bush. He simply reiterated the soaring rhetoric and the idealism with which he speaks about freedom,democracy and such'.

"And when it came to the three difficult parts, if you will, that he has to deal with - Iraq, the elections in Gaza and Iran," he added, "All you got really was a reiteration of the glories of freedom and the fact that freedom is on the march in all these places and the problems will in effect take care of themselves."

Zakaria argued that 'while most Americans support the President's goals - like his rhetoric and idealism - there is a sense that the rhetoric is operating at 35,000 feet. That is doesn't seem to mesh with the rather muddy reality that it taking place in Iraq, in Gaza or with regard to Iranian nuclear weapons'.

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC