Leading article: Mr Bush's conversion is welcome, but incomplete

Click to follow

President Bush's 2006 State of the Union address was distinctive in two quite different ways. It was distinctive, first, for the assurance with which he delivered it. Gone was the stuttering, malaprop-prone Bush of old. Here was a fluent and passionate public advocate, whose confidence belied his languishing poll ratings and the policy stalemate he faces at home.

But it was distinctive, second, for what he had to say about energy. Mr Bush has always prided himself on being a Texan and a former oilman. Accurate or not, the image he projected was that of the greedy American, confident that his country was big enough and rich enough to feed his own and his countrymen's gargantuan appetites. The gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles that sustained the US car industry during his first term seemed to symbolise that profligacy.

On Tuesday night, however, he changed his tune. After pledging, as expected, that the US was in Iraq for the duration and insisting that Iran mend its wicked ways, Mr Bush suddenly introduced a new theme. The United States, he told his unsuspecting audience, had to break its "addiction" to oil. And, sunny optimist though he usually is, he went on to describe US dependence on imported oil as "a serious problem".

As with any addiction, acknowledgement that there is a problem is the first step to recovery. So the significance of this moment cannot be overestimated. For the Texan oil president to talk about reining in America's thirst for oil marks a welcome recognition of reality.

Whether Mr Bush will draw the necessary conclusions, however, is another matter. He linked his conversion to the continuing insecurity in the Middle East. The US, he said, was far too reliant on oil from "unstable" countries. He said that oil imports from the region had to be slashed by 75 per cent, and proposed a plan that would see America's cars powered by fuel cells and ethanol made from maize, sugar and grass. He called for a large increase in funding for clean-energy research, including the development of solar and wind energy, cleaner-burning coal and nuclear power.

Mr Bush's concern to reduce dependency on Middle East oil was a tacit admission - the only one in his speech - that the military intervention in Iraq had failed to produce at least one of the desired effects: a large increase in oil production and more secure conditions for its export. He seems to have recognised that the aim of achieving energy security by spreading democracy across the Middle East is unattainable, at least in the short term, and possibly ever. This looks very like the end of the Bush administration's project to bring freedom, democracy and "American values" to the region, despite the lofty promises he made to Iraq in the same speech.

Where Mr Bush's new realism falls most seriously short, however, is in the remedies he offered. The increase in funding for research into alternative energy resources is small indeed beside America's enormous consumption. And whether Mr Bush can extend his conversion to alternative energy to his fellow Americans is another question. The craze for huge cars may be waning, but the United States is still far more car-dependent than most other countries, and changing this mentality will take much higher prices and a corresponding political will.

Most disappointing about Mr Bush's call for a new approach to energy, however, was his failure to consider the global context and reverse his rejection of the Kyoto treaty. While a reduction in US oil consumption might help to reduce the country's carbon emissions, Mr Bush has still not acknowledged climate change as a problem to be tackled co-operatively. Until he does so, his conversion will be sadly incomplete.