Bush says only US can secure world peace

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President George Bush insisted last night that, despite its difficulties in Iraq, America would not retreat from the world, arguing that US leadership "is the only way to secure the peace". Isolationism and protectionism, he warned in his annual State of the Union address, led ultimately only " to danger and decline."

Instead, according to excerpts of the speech released in advance by the White House, Mr Bush asked for more money to spend on basic science research, and on education in maths and science, to help the country face the challenge from rising, lower-wage powers like China and India.

"The American economy is pre-eminent," he was to tell Congress on one of the great set-piece occasions of the political year. But in today's "dynamic world economy" the US could not afford to be complacent. He warned how the country's "is addicted" to ever more costly oil, and was expected to urge greater use of nuclear power and alternative energy sources. "The best way to reduce this addiction is through technology," Mr Bush declared, according to the advance text.

A State of the Union address is always an important psychological moment ­ but never more so than this year, as Mr Bush attempts to recover from a disastrous 2005, and boost morale in Republican ranks before this autumn's mid-term elections in which Democrats hope to make major gains.

In recent weeks his approval ratings have hovered around 40 per cent, the lowest at this stage in a presidency for any incumbent since Richard Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal. But Mr Bush won a significant victory when the Senate confirmed Samuel Alito to the US Supreme Court, tilting the country's highest judicial body to the right.

The vote was highly partisan, as all but one of the Senate's 55 Republicans voted in favour of Judge Alito, and only four of the Democratic minority broke party ranks to support him. He was eventually approved by 58 votes to 42, the tightest margin for a Supreme Court nominee in almost 15 years.

But however narrow, the result was sweet for Mr Bush. Last night the new Justice was in the chamber of the House of Representatives to listen to Mr Bush speak, along with his new colleagues ­ among them John Roberts, who took over as Chief Justice last autumn after the death of William Rehnquist.

Both newcomers are conservatives. As lifelong appointees to a court whose role as arbiter of America's culture wars is steadily increasing, they represent a Bush legacy both longer lasting and more substantial than anything the President was expected to say last night.

Even before the speech, White House officials made clear that given the current $350bn-plus federal budget deficit, the speech would contain no major spending initiatives on the domestic front. But Mr Bush is making a new push for individual health savings accounts, in a bid to impose a measure of control on runaway US health care spending, now accounting for $1.6trn, an unprecedented 16 per cent of GDP.

On the foreign front the most keenly anticipated sections of the speech were to deal with Iran's nuclear programme and the Hamas victory in last month's Palestinian elections.

This fifth State of the Union, marking the start of the President's sixth year in office, is in practice the last in which Mr Bush can hope to impose his will on domestic politics. After the mid-term vote, the focus switches to the battle to succeed him.