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Startling and Clear: Bush Defies Critics

By Gerard Baker

President Bush's address to the nation last night was not just a rejection of the political clamor at home for an early withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. It was not simply a rebuff to those in his own party and in the Pentagon who believe that victory in Iraq is irretrievable from the mire in which the US finds itself. It was not merely an admission of mistakes in the execution of this calamitous war so far.

It was a clarion reaffirmation, even in the midst of unparalleled adversity, of the entire foreign policy strategy that drove the Bush administration in the weeks and months after September 11, 2001. It was a defiant and ringing rededication of a beleaguered president in the final two years of his term to the revolution in global affairs he unleashed five years ago.

Almost from the moment Mr Bush was re-elected in 2004, the smart money in foreign policy circles has said that the president was steadily abandoning the platform of unilateral pre-emptive use of US power to face down threats and aggressively promote democracy in the Middle East. Condoleezza Rice's State Department has done its best to repair much of the deep rift with the rest of the world that was produced in Mr Bush's first term. The US has backed the European-led diplomatic approach to resolving the crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions. She has focused as far as possible on emphasising the positives, the common values and interests the US shares with the rest of the civilized world. In the rest of the world, continuing disdain for President Bush has been tempered by a smug certainty that the administration itself had finally come to recognize the errors of its ways - acknowledging that Iraq was a disaster, and that the only way forwards for US policy was backwards - back to the multilateral consensual diplomacy the rest of the world believes has been the most effective US foreign policy in the past.

Mr Bush's critics at home and abroad crowed that the Bush Revolution in foreign policy was over. That judgment seemed to be confirmed by the results of last November's midterm congressional elections, when the Republicans lost control of the Senate and the House of Representatives, by the removal of the demon-figure of Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, and by the recommendations of the great and the good of the US foreign policy establishment in the form of James Baker's Iraq Study Group.

But in just 20 minutes last night Mr Bush made clear that he defiantly rejects not only the Baker recommendations of a date for a US withdrawal from Iraq and diplomatic engagement with Iraq's troublesome neighbours, but the whole critique that the White House policies for the last few years have failed.

The deployment of five or six more brigades of US forces to Iraq and the commitment of additional financial resources to bolster the fledgling democracy were the main indications of Mr Bush's defiant determination to stick to his radical foreign policy strategy. But much more striking was the blunt warning to Syria and Iran to stop interfering in Iraq and a reminder of the threat Iran's nuclear programme poses to the US. That warning and reminder followed the unusual appointment of an admiral as head of central command, where the main current conflicts are two large ground wars, a move that surely hints that the administration is seriously considering a military approach by air and sea to defanging the Iranian threat.

The president's unrelenting commitment to his goals was also evident in the mere lip service he seemed to pay to a renewed diplomatic push by the US for Middle East peace. Though he had been urged by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, Mr Bush did not even make an explicit reference to US efforts to bring Israel and the Palestinians towards a negotiated settlement and said merely that Dr Rice would be visiting the region this weekend as part of a broader effort to promote peace in the region.

Mr Bush's message was startling and clear - there is No Turning Back under this presidency. He remains defiant in the teeth of rising domestic political opposition, unsettling military doubts about the efficacy of the Iraq strategy and deepening international contempt for both his objectives of remaking the Middle East and his chosen means of deploying US power to do it.

Two questions now will determine whether he can actually succeed. Will his final Iraq gamble actually pay off this time, and how much space will Americans and their political leaders allow him as the clock winds down on his tumultuous presidency?

Gerard Baker is US Editor and Assistant Editor of The Times of London. Email: gerard.baker@thetimes.co.uk

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