By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
In his State of the Union address last night, President Bush presented an arguably misleading and often flawed description of "the enemy" that the United States faces overseas, lumping together disparate groups with opposing ideologies to suggest that they have a single-minded focus in attacking the United States.
Under Bush's rubric, a country such as Iran -- which enjoys diplomatic representation and billions of dollars in trade with major European countries -- is lumped together with al-Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "The Shia and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat," Bush said, referring to the different branches of the Muslim religion.
Similarly, Bush asserted that Shia Hezbollah, which has won seats in the Lebanese government, is a terrorist group "second only to al-Qaeda in the American lives it has taken." Bush is referring to attacks nearly a quarter-century ago on a U.S. embassy and a Marine barracks when the United States intervened in Lebanon's civil war by shelling Hezbollah strongholds. Hezbollah has evolved into primarily an anti-Israeli militant organization -- it fought a war with Israel last summer -- but the European Union does not list it as a terrorist organization.
At one point, Bush catalogued what he described as advances in the quest for freedom in the Middle East during 2005 -- such as the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon and elections in Iraq. Then, Bush asserted, "a thinking enemy watched all of these scenes, adjusted their tactics and in 2006 they struck back." But his description of the actions of "the enemy" tried to tie together a series of diplomatic and military setbacks that had virtually no connection to one another, from an attack on a Sunni mosque in Iraq to the assassination of Maronite Lebanese political figure.
In his speech, Bush argued that "free people are not drawn to violent and malignant ideologies -- and most will choose a better way when they are given a chance." He also said that terrorist groups "want to overthrow moderate governments."
In the two of the most liberal and diverse societies in the Middle East -- Lebanon and the Palestinian territories -- events have undercut Bush's argument in the past year. Hezbollah has gained power and strength in Lebanon, partly at the ballot box. Meanwhile, Palestinians ousted the Fatah party -- which wants to pursue peace with Israel -- from the legislature in favor of Hamas, which is committed to Israel's destruction and is considered a terrorist organization by the State Department.
In fact, many of the countries that Bush considers "moderate" -- such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- are autocratic dictatorships rated among the worst of the "not free" nations by the nonpartisan Freedom House. Their Freedom House ratings are virtually indistinguishable from Cuba, Belarus and Burma, which Bush last night listed as nations in desperate need of freedom.
Bush also claimed that "we have a diplomatic strategy that is rallying the world to join in the fight against extremism." But Monday, a poll of 26,000 people in 25 countries was released that showed that global opinion of U.S. foreign policy has sharply deteriorated in the past two years. Nearly three-quarters of those polled by GlobeScan, an international polling company, disapprove of U.S. policies toward Iraq, and nearly half said the United States is playing a mainly negative role in the world.
In his State of the Union address a year ago, Bush said that progress in Iraq meant "we should be able to further decrease our troop levels" but that "those decisions will be made by our military commanders, not by politicians in Washington, D.C." Bush now proposes to increase troop levels, after having overruled the concerns of commanders. In his speech last night, he sidestepped this contradiction, saying that "our military commanders and I have carefully weighed the options" and "in the end, I chose this course of action."
On domestic policy, Bush at one point said that "the recovery" has added more than 7.2 million jobs since August 2003. But the net number of jobs created since Bush became president in January 2001, is much lower -- just 3.6 million. The Bush administration's performance is fairly mediocre for the sixth year of a presidency, according to historical statistics maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly 18 million jobs were added by the sixth year of Bill Clinton's presidency -- and nearly 10 million were added at this point in Ronald Reagan's presidency.
Bush claimed credit for cutting the budget deficit ahead of schedule and proposed to eliminate it over the next five years. He did not mention that he inherited a huge budget surplus -- $236 billion in 2000 -- compared with a $296 billion deficit in the 2006 fiscal year, largely as a result of Bush's tax cuts and spending increases. Bush claimed that the No Child Left Behind Act has helped students to "perform better at reading and math, and minority students are closing the achievement gap." But states made stronger average annual gains in reading during the decade before the law took effect, education researchers have found, and half a dozen recent studies have shown little progress in narrowing the test-score gap between minority and white students.
Staff writer Amit R. Paley contributed to this report.