Most of us are familiar with the saying: "Time
flies when you're having fun." After all, five hours of flight turbulence feels
much longer than five hours on a beach resort. In fact, scientists have demonstrated
that patterns of activity in the brain tend to accelerate in response to positive
emotional stimulation, and vice versa.
That perhaps explains why during the booming 1990s time seemed to have passed
without us noticing it, and why, on the other hand, the next three years of
the Bush administration will probably seem to drag and drag.
Indeed, the NBC comedy show Saturday Night Live recently featured a
(make-believe) President George W. Bush sitting in the (make-believe) Oval Office
and admitting to his (make-believe) vice president, Dick Cheney, that all he
was hoping for was to be transported by a time machine to the last months of
2008 during which his term in office would end.
And who could blame him? With his approval rating in the polls down to the
low 30s, President Bush and his aides are, to paraphrase Dusty Springfield,
wishing and hoping and thinking and praying, planning and dreaming each day
and night for just one tiny piece of good news that would help get the White
House occupant and the Republicans into the arms of a not-so-loving public.
But it just isn't happening. In Iraq, notwithstanding the Bushies' rhetoric
about "freedom on the march" and even as a new Shi'ite prime minister takes
office, the political instability, economic deterioration, and violence perpetrated
by a mishmash of anti-American insurgents, ethnic and religious militias, and
criminal gangs isn't going to come to an end any time soon.
At the same time, there are no indications that the Bush administration is
about to resolve the dangerous Iran nuclear crisis. Iran's mullahs continue
to insist on their right to pursue their nuclear program while Washington has
yet to win the support of members of the United Nations Security Council for
taking action against Tehran.
There are even signs that the Taliban guerillas are expanding their influence
across some parts of Afghanistan and threatening the power of the pro-Western
central government in Kabul.
And as we get close to the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the architect of that
terrorist crime, Osama bin Laden, hasn't been captured by the Americans or their
allies. He is probably hiding somewhere in Pakistan.
If the Bush administration's prestige and influence has been in continuing
decline abroad, its standing at home has been going downhill as evidenced not
only by those devastating opinion polls, but also by never ending reports about
bureaucratic mismanagement and political corruption, the latest one being the
"resignation" of the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Porter
Goss, against the backdrop of chaos in the organization that had failed to…
(well, it's a very long list) and rumors about members of Mr. Goss' staff having
ties to a corrupt congressman, a sleazy lobbyist, and a prostitution ring.
And apropos the CIA, Washington is holding its breath as Special Counsel Patrick
Fitzgerald is wrapping up his investigation into that leak case involving top
White House officials, including Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove.
Unfortunately for President Bush and the Republicans, even the overall good
news on the economy – low interest rates, falling unemployment, and a rally
in the stock market – has not helped to provide the White House with political
momentum. Most Americans are not crediting President Bush with this economic
progress and instead are blaming him for the economic problems – the growing
health care costs, the struggling manufacturing sector, and of course, the rising
price of oil.
The result is that while close to 60 percent of American say that the American
economy is doing well, about 30 percent of them disapprove of the way Bush is
handling the economy.
But most distressing to President Bush and his Republican Party are those poll
results that indicate that most Americans have lost their trust in Mr. Bush
and believe the country isn't moving in the right direction, reflecting a growing
sense that the American public is in a very angry mood.
To say that the Republican lawmakers are in a panic would be an understatement.
Opinion polls as well as anecdotal evidence have led political experts to conclude
that the Democrats have a chance of regaining control of the House of Representatives
and perhaps even the Senate in the coming congressional elections in November.
The worst-case scenario from the perspective of the White House and the Republicans
is that a new Congress controlled by the Democrats would launch numerous investigations
of the Bush administration's Iraq misadventure and the many related scandals
(very likely) and perhaps even try to impeach the White House occupant (less
All of that explains why leading Republicans on Capitol Hill are now distancing
themselves from the White House on a variety of issues, including immigration,
trade, Iraq, and the selection of new candidates for positions in the administration.
Hence, several top Republican lawmakers have expressed opposition to Mr. Bush's
choice of Gen. Michael Hayden to replace Mr. Goss as head of the CIA. These
Republicans are taking steps to ensure that they won't be kicked out of office
The results of the congressional races and even more important, the major themes
that will be highlighted during the campaign, will help determine the direction
of the race to the White House in 2008.
If Iraq becomes the central issue in the 2006 campaign and candidates calling
for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from that country win in some of the important
races this year, that could weaken the administration's ability to pursue its
ambitious policy in the Middle East and around the world.
It could also slow down the electoral momentum of the top presidential candidates
in the two major parties – Republican John McCain and Democrat Hillary Clinton
– both of whom supported the war in Iraq and believe that the U.S. should "stay
the course" there while preparing for a diplomatic and military confrontation
with Iran over its nuclear program.
Instead, antiwar candidates like Republican Charles Hagel and Democrat John
Edwards (and even former Vice President Al Gore) could improve their position
as potential presidential candidates.
President Bush will not be running for in 2008, and his vice president insists
that he isn't planning to replace his boss in the White House. But for a U.S.
president who has staked his historical legacy on the outcome of the Iraq War,
a rising anti-Iraq-War tide during the 2006 election could force him to reverse
his policies in the Middle East and damage whatever is left of his reputation.
So what is he going to do in order to save his legacy?
Some have speculated that a military confrontation with Iran on the eve of
the 2006 race could be just what a political doctor like Karl Rove would order
to help his White House patient. A spectacular U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear
military facilities could help re-ignite nationalist sentiments among voters
and encourage them to rally behind their War President, just like the military
victories in Afghanistan and Iraq permitted Mr. Bush and the Republicans to
win electoral victories in 2002 and 2004.
The problem is that no one really knows how a military and diplomatic conflict
with the Iranians would end, although one thing is sure: It would ignite a major
increase in oil prices, and after a long summer in which U.S. consumers/voters
would see the costs of their petrol double or even triple, Mr. Bush's party
would be smashed in the congressional elections.
So the only realistic choice open to Bush is to continue increasing the diplomatic
pressure on the Iranians without resorting to the use of military force, which
would only help to accentuate his weakness vis-à-vis the mullahs in Tehran.
There is also no doubt that starting to withdraw some of the 140,000 U.S. troops
in Iraq before the November elections would play well among voters. While U.S.
officials have hinted that they were hoping to do just that in the coming months,
most military experts are warning that the Iraqi military will not be ready
any time soon to assume the responsibility for fighting the insurgents. Such
a U.S. move could create the conditions for a full-blown civil war in the country.
In turn, that would only increase the political pressure in Washington to withdraw
totally from Iraq.
Hence, the expectation in Washington is that the Bush administration will try
to do a lot of media spinning in the next months to create the impression that
it is planning to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq while at the same time it prepares
for the permanent presence of the American military in the country.
In a way, a politically weak President Bush will be embracing a form of preemptive
action against a victorious Democratic Congress in 2006 and a Democratic president
who could be elected in 2008. By building new U.S. military bases in Iraq and
accelerating the momentum toward confrontation with Iran, President Bush will
be ensuring that even his opponents on Capitol Hill and his successor in office
have no choice but to continue his hegemonic policies in the Middle East.
Copyright © 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.