Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 February 2005
Issue No. 729
International
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sticks and carrots

In his State of the Union address, President Bush delivered tough warnings to Iran and Syria, and called upon Washington's Middle East allies to kick-start the democratisation process, Khaled Dawoud reports from Washington

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President George W Bush flanked by Vice-President Dick Cheney and Treasury Secretary John Snow (photo: Reuters)

Feeling triumphant and vindicated following Iraq's 30 January elections, US President George W Bush delivered yet another emotional State of the Union address last week. Bush vowed to support democratic movements in the Middle East and beyond, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world.

While the speech itself did not include any new proposals or ideas that differed from what the US president has been uttering since his re-election for a second term in November, observers noted the tough words Bush had for both Iran and Syria; "Today, Iran remains the world's primary sponsor of terror, pursuing nuclear weapons while depriving its people of the freedom they seek and deserve."

While avoiding a repeat of the term he used three years ago in a similar State of the Union address, considering Iran part of the "axis of evil" that also included Iraq and North Korea, the US president indicated that Washington would continue to seek regime-change in Tehran.

"And to the Iranian people I say tonight: As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you," he told jubilant Republicans who interrupted his speech with standing ovations. But the US leader, who said he would also seek to fix damaged relations with key European allies over the Iraq war, made no mention of an imminent military strike against Iran.

Bush said he would continue working with European allies to force the Iranian regime to give up its nuclear-related programmes and "end its support for terror".

In a separate but related development, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in Germany that an attack against Iran "is simply not on the agenda at this point".

On her first European tour since taking office her conciliatory remarks stood well with her German hosts. Rejecting the military option only "at this point" did not totally satisfy Germany, France and Britain, however, who have been leading negotiations with Iran to halt its nuclear programme, and indicated that the Bush administration remained unwilling to join their effort in dealing directly with Tehran.

Considering the strong influence both Iran and Syria have over the situation in Iraq, the US president also delivered tough warnings to Damascus, indicating he might seek more sanctions against the Syrians if they did not show more cooperation over Iraq and the Middle East peace process. "Syria still allows its territory, and parts of Lebanon, to be used by terrorists who seek to destroy every chance of peace in the region," Bush said.

Referring to the Syrian Accountability Act, which the US Congress passed late last year, imposing a variety of sanctions against Damascus, Bush said he expected the Syrian government "to end all support for terror and open the door to freedom".

Considering the significance of the State of the Union address in which the president traditionally lays out his agenda for the year, observers also noted Bush's call to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both key and traditional US allies, to move forward in their democratisation process. "The government of Saudi Arabia can demonstrate its leadership in the region by expanding the role of its people in determining their future. And the great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way towards peace in the Middle East, can now show the way towards democracy in the Middle East," Bush told Congress members.

Dan Bartlett, counsellor to the president, denied that Bush's reference to Egypt and Saudi Arabia in his speech indicated a change in policy, and asserted that both countries continued to be "close allies and countries we've worked with very cooperatively in the past."

Bartlett told Al-Ahram Weekly that the US president has been "very consistent" in calling, both publicly and privately, for "a constructive dialogue about the issue of human rights and liberty and democracy with the leaders in the Middle East."

He recalled how the US president made nearly the same appeal to the Egyptian government two years ago in a speech he delivered at National Endowment for Democracy.

In fact, there was a difference of one word only in the reference Bush made in his State of the Union speech to Egypt compared to his previous statement. Two years ago, Bush said that Egypt "should show the way towards democracy in the Middle East", while in his address last week, the US president used a relatively milder language, saying Egypt "can now show the way towards democracy in the Middle East".

In diplomatic language, one State Department official told the Weekly, "saying Egypt can 'now' instead of 'should' show the way towards democracy was more refined and reflected the friendly relations between the two countries."

At a time when Egypt is heavily involved in reviving peace talks between Israel and Palestinians, and with the US giving priority to restoring stability in Iraq, most US observers did not believe Washington would jeopardise its relations with Cairo or Riyadh. But, according to the same State Department official, "respect of human rights and democracy will become a common theme in discussions between the two countries."

Yet, it was obvious that in the cases of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the US administration would work with both governments to encourage them to speed up the democratisation process, while with Iran and Syria, Washington would adopt a more aggressive policy that would not exclude the possibility of regime change.

During her European tour, Rice told reporters that Bush's reference to Egypt and Saudi Arabia in his speech last week "was really just a call to two of the most important states in the region to begin to find their own way towards more open political systems."

Offering an obvious sweetener to Arab allies, Bush renewed his commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state, saying that the "goal of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace is within reach, and America will help them achieve that goal." He also announced that he would ask the Congress for $350 million to support "Palestinian political, economic and security reforms".

Rice told reporters that she expected the release of $40 million to the Palestinians within 90 days, and called upon other world countries, particularly oil-rich Arab Gulf states, to make similar contributions during an international conference to be held in London in early March to support Palestinian reforms.

As for Iraq, the US leader remained firm in rejecting appeals by his Democratic opponents, and even in some Republican Party circles, to set an "exit strategy" or a timetable to pull out American occupation troops.

"We will not set an artificial timetable for leaving Iraq, because that would embolden the terrorists and make them believe they can wait us out," Bush said. He added that the US was in Iraq to establish a democratic country at peace with its neighbours, "and when that result is achieved, our men and women serving in Iraq will return home with the honour they have earned."

Bush said the US would continue its effort to rebuild Iraqi security forces, adding that when the goal was achieved, "America and its coalition partners will increasingly be in a supporting role."

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