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May 11, 2006

Bush's Slow Race
in the Last Lap

What will he do to save his legacy?

by Leon Hadar

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 likely).

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 in November.

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.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore. Visit his blog.

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