Bush speech an ‘obstinate bid for popularity’

World commentators have characterised United States President George Bush’s State of the Union speech as an obstinate bid to regain popularity with unrealistic promises, suggesting on Wednesday that his pledge to break the US’s dependence on Mideast oil offered the only surprise in an otherwise bland speech.

Activists, politicians and newspaper critics reacted with a yawn to the annual address, noting that the hours-long speech lacked fresh ideas and catchy phrases like ”axis of evil”. But several praised Bush for recognising that the US’s gas-guzzling days must end.

”Many people have said it is amazing that an oil man would do that. But the oil man is the president and the president has low ratings,” said Robert McGeehan, a fellow in American Foreign Policy at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. ”Americans love motor cars, and high petrol prices have affected them.”

The French daily Le Monde was sceptical that Bush could reach his goal of cutting oil imports from the Middle East by 75% in the next two decades.

”The goal seems difficult to reach for the US, which is expected to consume 26-million barrels of oil per day in 2025, with 60% from imports,” it said.

Even so, activists such as Steven Sawyer, a spokesperson for Greenpeace International, wished him well — and offered hope that the US Congress would back his vision with funding.

”The first step in dealing with an addiction is recognising the problem, so you could call this the first step in a 12-step programme to end oil-aholism,” Sawyer said. ”Good luck to him. It’s something that desperately needs to be done.”

Bush’s speech on Tuesday night offered a modest programme. He declared that the US must stay the course in Iraq and that the US must ”keep our word, defeat our enemies and stand behind the American military in its vital mission”.

Bush appeared to tone down his criticism of North Korea and his concerns over the growing competitiveness of China and India, experts in Asia said.

While Bush vowed the US would continue to lead the fight to spread democracy, experts said his comments on foreign issues were relatively broad and were not expected to generate many waves.

But commentators such as Valerie Marcel, an expert on energy and oil at the Royal Institute, said Bush had good reason to be tough on oil.

”The big concern for Republican senators is … the idea that Middle East producers are making so much money from high oil prices. This money they feel could, and will, fund terrorism against the US,” she said. However, she cautioned against expecting anything dramatic.

”In contrast to Europe, what George Bush’s speech reflects is that there is no question of changing lifestyles in the US,” she said. ”It is only about finding new energy that isn’t so politically costly that can maintain this lifestyle. People can keep buying the SUVs [sports utility vehicles] but they can run them on ethanol instead.” — Sapa-AP

Associated Press writers Toby Sterling in Amsterdam, Zoe Mezin in Paris and Tariq Panja in London contributed to this story

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