(photo credit: AP)
Of the many challenges facing America, the country's position in the Middle East is the greatest, US President George W. Bush declared in his State of the Union speech Tuesday.
"Ladies and gentlemen, nothing is more important at this moment in our history than for America to succeed in the Middle East," he told the crowd of congressmen, cabinet secretaries and Supreme Court justices gathered in the capitol, as well as millions of Americans watching on TV.
Bush was speaking specifically about the situation in Iraq, but referred to the advantage Iran would gain should US forces withdraw and the "nightmare scenario" of an "epic battle" between Sunni and Shi'ite extremists break out.
Pointing to diplomatic achievements, Bush again mentioned Iran when he highlighted the UN Security Council's resolution against the Islamic Republic: "The United Nations has imposed sanctions on Iran, and made it clear that the world will not allow the regime in Teheran to acquire nuclear weapons." His words were greeted with a standing ovation by congressmen on both sides of the aisle.
Bush also singled out Hizbullah when cautioning Americans of the risk posed by Shi'ite extremists. "Many are known to take direction from the regime in Iran, which is funding and arming terrorists like Hizbullah - a group second only to al-Qaida in the American lives it has taken."
Later, Bush said that in 2006, "Hizbullah terrorists, with support from Syria and Iran, sowed conflict in the region," which many listeners perceived as a reference to the kidnapping of IDF soldiers that sparked last summer's Lebanon war.
A speech widely viewed as more subdued and sober than previous State of the Union deliveries, Tuesday's lacked the rhetorical flourish of previous years - notably that of 2002, when he branded Iran, Iraq and North Korea an "axis of evil."
This was also the first time that Bush had to address a Democratic majority during the State of the Union, a sign of how popular support for him has plummeted, raising questions as to whether the president can be as assertive on foreign policy as he has been in the past.
But Daniel Mariaschin, B'nai Brith International Executive Vice President, said that Bush was as forceful on Iran as ever.
"It's very clear that the Iranian threat is very high on the administration's agenda," he said, pointing to the number of times Bush uttered the word Iran, five in all. "This seems to be consistent with other messages the administration has given."
Mariaschin also noted the negative attention Bush gave to Hizbullah, which is "widely known" as an Iranian proxy.
Joel Tauber, a former chairman of the United Jewish Communities and co-chair of Campaign for American Leadership in the Middle East, agreed that Bush remained strong on Iran in his address. He said that political constraints - the need to win the audience over on Iraq and domestic issues - might have affected the tone of the speech, but not the policy underlying it.
Tauber, whose group wants to see greater American engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and called for Bush to emphasize the issue in the State of the Union, assessed that Bush is committed to a more active American role in ending the conflict, even if he only allocated a few words to that effort.
Speaking of America's work with the international community, Bush said, "With the other members of the Quartet - the UN, the European Union and Russia - we are pursuing diplomacy to help bring peace to the Holy Land, and pursuing the establishment of a democratic Palestinian state living side by side with Israel, in peace and security."
"He gave us one sentence - it's better than nothing," Tauber commented, but he also said, "It certainly would have been more gratifying if he had made a stronger statement."
Israel Policy Forum president Seymour Reich went further. "I'm disappointed that the president did not take the opportunity to make clear that his administration will support a more robust approach to peacemaking between the Israelis and the Palestinians," he said. "He could have made reference to the forthcoming meeting that Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice has indicated she will have with Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert and Palestinian [Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas. That would have elevated the significance of that meeting and indirectly strengthened Abbas."
IPF policy analysis director MJ Rosenberg noted the lack of time given to Israel, which may actually indicate a new emphasis on peacemaking.
"In contrast to almost every State of the Union address by recent presidents, there was not a single reference to standing with Israel. Usually, that's a sure applause line. This time his rallying cry was the evenhanded call for the two-state solution," he said.
"In a speech where he was desperate for bipartisan applause, he still chose not to go for a ritualistic statement of support for Israel. That may mean that the administration is looking for a breakthrough and understands that going for easy applause by invoking Israel is probably not helpful," he continued.
Bush did make a bipartisan appeal when it came to fighting terrorism. He announced the creation of a special advisory council on the war on terror made up of congressional leaders from both parties, explaining, "We will share ideas for how to position America to meet every challenge that confronts us. And we will show our enemies abroad that we are united in the goal of victory."
He stated, "The war on terror we fight today is a generational struggle that will continue long after you and I have turned our duties over to others. That is why it is important to work together so our nation can see this great effort through."