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Bush´s Ideals Still Aimed at Middle East (LA TIMES) By Sonni Efron WASHINGTON 02/03/05)Source: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-iraq3feb03,1,1283463.story LOS ANGELES TIMES LOS ANGELES TIMES Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
WASHINGTON — Ignoring calls for an exit strategy from Iraq, President Bush declared in his State of the Union address that he would set no "artificial timetable" and said that doing so could embolden terrorists to wait out the United States.

In a speech that echoed the soaring foreign policy ideals of his inaugural address last month, Bush linked American security to the spread of freedom and democracy around the world, particularly in the Middle East.

The president said that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is "within reach" and asked Congress for $350 million in aid for the Palestinians, a much larger package than was expected.

He called on the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt to adopt democratic reforms and appealed to the Iranian people to "stand" for liberty.

But Bush devoted only one sentence in his 53-minute speech to North Korea, one of the "axis of evil" states that previously received star billing in the president´s speeches.

Bush referred to the high turnout in Iraq´s national election last weekend in presenting a largely positive assessment of U.S. involvement there. He quoted an Iraqi interpreter who asked America "not to abandon us," and he vowed that although the U.S. military strategy may shift, "our commitment remains firm and unchanging."

Bush said the United States would "focus our efforts on helping prepare more capable Iraqi security forces" that will enable America and its coalition partners to "increasingly be in a supporting role."

Democrats in Congress, who have been demanding that the administration unveil a specific exit strategy for Iraq, argued in a response Wednesday night that the administration has been overstating the numbers of adequately trained, competent Iraqi forces.

Rejecting calls for a timetable, Bush said U.S. forces would return home once Iraq is "democratic, representative of all its people, at peace with its neighbors and able to defend itself."

After the speech, analysts differed on the implications of Bush´s criteria for withdrawal. The idealistic goals "could keep American troops in Iraq for as long as they´ve been in Europe," said Lee Feinstein of the Council on Foreign Relations. But Gary J. Schmitt of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century said that pulling U.S. forces out while Iraq was not self-governing or able to defend itself would invite a much worse regional conflict.

The absence of tough rhetoric toward North Korea, which is run by a totalitarian regime that the administration believes has nuclear weapons, indicated that the president would like to restart negotiations with Pyongyang.

"That was probably a signal that the administration is out of confrontational options and preparing for some kind of diplomatic accommodation," Feinstein said.

By contrast, Bush had sharp words for Syria, which he insisted must "end all support for terror and open the door to freedom." He also singled out Iran, which he called "the world´s primary state sponsor of terror."

"To the Iranian people, I say tonight: As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you," the president said.

That call to revolt was reminiscent of the appeals U.S. leaders issued to Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War with the Soviet Union and to the Shiite Muslims and Kurds of Saddam Hussein´s Iraq shortly after the 1991 Gulf War, said Ivo Daalder, a Brookings Institution foreign policy expert who has advised Democratic candidates.

In those nations, the United States left the rebels to be crushed by their rulers. Bush´s statement could trigger questions about how far the president would go to defend Iranians who defy their government.

"Those are powerful words with particular consequences," Daalder said. "I´m not convinced he has thought through the consequences."

But Schmitt argued that Bush´s words suggested "that we´re back in the business of regime change."

"That doesn´t mean we´re necessarily involved in taking military action, but it suggests that the administration has a game plan of trying to move Iran from its current government to one that´s truly democratic."

Greater U.S. support for Iranian opposition groups is probably part of that effort, he said.

Over the last year, the president has been gradually putting Middle East leaders on notice that the United States would stop ignoring the abuses of even friendly tyrants.

He repeated that theme forcefully Wednesday, singling out Egypt and Saudi Arabia as governments that should lead the way toward democracy. Although Bush issued no threats and spelled out no consequences, "he´s certainly putting them on notice that he´d like to see progress," Schmitt said.

The money for the Palestinians would provide urgent support to newly elected Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to make the political, economic and especially security reforms needed to sustain conditions for a cease-fire with Israel. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to discuss such reforms with Abbas during a trip to the Middle East next week, her first in her new job.

Administration sources had forecast up to $200 million in aid, but Bush´s $350-million request — four times current annual U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority — signaled a fresh commitment to restarting the moribund Middle East peace process.

The funding pledge, the optimistic declaration that peace is possible and the decision to send Rice to meet with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon marked a clear break with Bush´s first term, when the administration kept its distance from the conflict by refusing to deal with the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. (Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times 02/03/05)


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