US will soon beat its addiction to oil, says Bush

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The Independent US

President Bush has placed the US on alert that it must end its "addiction to oil" - less out of environmental concern than because of risks the country's dependence on imported energy pose to national security and American prosperity.

In a State of the Union address that by his standards was low-key and non-triumphalist, Mr Bush set out the array of intertwined economic challenges facing the US, ranging from ever more expensive oil and gas to the competitive threat posed by China and India, and runaway healthcare costs at home.

Less than 24 hours after delivering the presidential set-piece speech of the year to a packed chamber of the House of Representatives, Mr Bush took to the road yesterday to hammer home his message. His first stop was Nashville, Tennessee, a major centre of the medical industry, where he was to promote his proposal to make health care more affordable by expanding tax-free health savings accounts.

But faced with the size of the problem - healthcare spending accounts for 16 per cent of America's entire economy - the remedy was modest indeed. It was a reflection of how Mr Bush's room for manoeuvre is limited: abroad by the draining, vastly expensive and widely unpopular war in Iraq; and at home by massive federal budget and current-account deficits.

His words during the State of the Union address occasionally soared, drawing the traditional thunderous applause from Republicans in the chamber. But his body language seemed defensive, and his concrete proposals few. At 50 minutes, the speech was shorter than usual.

Since 9/11, Mr Bush has seen himself as a "transformational" president, who made bold moves that changed the world, such as the "war on terror", the invasion of Iraq and the goal of replacing tyranny with democracy across the Middle East and beyond.

On Tuesday night he reiterated America's "historic long-term goal" of "seeking the end of tyranny in our world". He admitted the difficulties that still plagued Iraq, but again insisted that an early withdrawal by the US would merely make those difficulties worse. "We are in this fight to win, and we are winning," he said. But his tone was more subdued than usual. On Iran, the foreign policy challenge that is already dominating the year, he again condemned the Islamic regime for its support of terrorism and pursuit of nuclear weapons. But absent were the swaggering unilateralist threats brandished against Iraq before the 2003 invasion.

This time it was "the nations of the world" - not the US alone - who had to prevent the Iranian regime from acquiring nuclear weapons."

The unspoken, but unmistakable, admission was that Washington had little realistic option but to work with its allies to impose its will on Tehran.

Instead, he attempted to speak over the heads of the intransigent mullahs to the Iranian people. "America respects you, and we respect your country," he told Iran's citizens. "We respect your right ... to win your own freedom." One day, he hoped, America would be "the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran".

It was far from clear yesterday whether the address had succeeded in its overriding goal, of reinvigorating Republicans before this autumn's mid-term elections, and regaining the political initiative for what will surely be a difficult final three years in the White House.

After hitting a post-Katrina nadir of barely 35 per cent, Mr Bush's approval ratings have recovered slightly - albeit to a level still worse than any re-elected president since Richard Nixon eight months before he resigned over Watergate. Initial polls suggested that television viewers were less impressed with Mr Bush's performance than with his 2005 State of the Union address, delivered in the afterglow of his presidential election victory over John Kerry. The past 12 months have been the worst year of his presidency.

But insofar as it is remembered at all, this State of the Union will go down as the one that was delivered days after the oil giant Exxon-Mobil announced 2005 earnings of $36bn (£20bn), the largest corporate profit in US history, and in which the Texas oilman-turned-president warned of his country's "addiction" to oil. "Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy, and here we have a serious problem," Mr Bush said. "America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world." How America would be weaned off that addiction, he was less convincing.

He urged greater use of hybrid vehicles and promised a 22 per cent increase in federal research spending on alternative sources of energy, including solar, wind and nuclear. The goal was to replace more than 75 per cent of US oil imports from the Middle East by 2025.

Ultimately, America had the ability to "move beyond the petroleum-based economy and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past."

Extracts from the State of the Union address

"Abroad, our nation is committed to an historic, long-term goal: We seek the end of tyranny in our world. Some dismiss that goal as misguided idealism. In reality, the future security of America depends on it. Dictatorships shelter terrorists, and feed resentment and radicalism, and seek weapons of mass destruction. Democracies replace resentment with hope, respect the rights of their citizens and their neighbours, and join the fight against terror. Every step toward freedom in the world makes our country safer, and so we will act boldly in freedom's cause."

"Far from being a hopeless dream, the advance of freedom is the great story of our time. No one can deny the success of freedom, but some men rage and fight against it. And one of the main sources of reaction and opposition is radical Islam; the perversion by a few of a noble faith into an ideology of terror and death. By allowing radical Islam to work its will, by leaving an assaulted world to fend for itself, we would signal to all that we no longer believe in our own ideals or even in our own courage. But our enemies and our friends can be certain: The United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to evil."

"[Iran is] a nation now held hostage by a small clerical elite that is isolating and repressing its people. The regime in that country sponsors terrorists in the Palestinian territories and in Lebanon, and that must come to an end."