Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Collapse of the Bush Presidency has begun

Note: Based on my assessment of the character and personality of George W. Bush, I predicted to friends and others that he would end his second term as a failed president. It is happening somewhat faster than I expected. See below.

Weakened Bush reels from new blows
Financial Times, Online edition
By Edward Alden, Guy Dinmore and Holly Yeager in Washington
Published: March 10 2006 19:42 | Last updated: March 10 2006 19:42

With nearly three years remaining in the administration of George W. Bush, it may be too soon to start writing the epitaph for his presidency. But after a week that saw a stinging rebuke at the hands of the Republican-controlled Congress over the Dubai ports deal, and growing warnings of civil war in Iraq, there is widespread concern in Washington that Mr Bush is now so crippled politically that he may not be able to rebound.

For the first four years of his presidency, Mr Bush's personal style seemed a great strength. When faced with political opposition, he was doggedly on message, faithful to his staff and Republican allies in Congress, and aggressive in carrying his message outside Washington to the US public. That focus helped him push through the largest tax cuts in US history, win congressional support for the invasion of Iraq, and deflect charges that his administration had missed the multiple warning signs prior to the September 11 2001 attacks.

He was rewarded with re-election in 2004 largely because Americans saw him as a stronger leader than Democratic rival John Kerry.

But since then, he has fallen farther and faster than any second-term president since Richard Nixon in the throes of the Watergate scandal. Unlike the first term, where every move seemed carefully calculated for political advantage, Mr Bush now seems deaf to the waves crashing around him.

"The power of an election keeps them sharp, it keeps them thinking about the political ramifications of every decision," says Julian Zelizer, history professor at Boston University. “Once they lose that edge, they make mistakes. Not having that election dulls your senses a bit.”

Indeed, Mr Bush’s first-term virtues now appear to be vices. His loyalty to his close circle of advisers has kept him from shuffling the White House staff, as most second-term presidents do. His stubbornness kept him from modifying his plans to reform Social Security until the initiative had foundered. And his repeated warnings of the threat the US faces from terrorist attack have been turned against him by Democrats.

Mr Bush signalled on Friday he had little intention of changing course. "You have to believe in certain principles and beliefs," he told a meeting of newspaper owners in Washington. "And you can’t let the public opinion polls and focus groups cause you to abandon what you believe and become the reason for making decisions."

He reiterated his strong personal beliefs in the universality of freedom, the peacefulness of democracies, free enterprise and the power of an almighty God. "I know some people would like me to change, but you can’t be a good decisionmaker if you’re trying to please people," he said.

Congress’s success at killing the Dubai ports deal was only the worst of the recent setbacks for Mr Bush. Little-noticed this week amid the furore, the administration was also rebuked by the courts and ordered to release the names and histories of all detainees at Guantánamo Bay, while the Pentagon announced it would close the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

With the third anniversary of the launch of the Iraq war approaching, the Bush administration's public statements are also increasingly sombre, a far cry from just nine months ago when Vice-President Dick Cheney declared the insurgency to be in its last throes.

Even Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary who has often accused the media of exaggerating the depth of the crisis, acknowledged on Thursday the possibility of civil war, and insisted that US troops would not be caught in the middle.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the skilled US ambassador to Baghdad who is struggling to get the Iraqis to form a government of national unity, this week conceded that the US had opened Pandora's box in Iraq, an assessment reinforced by the State Department's annual human rights report, which painted a grim picture of sectarian warfare between insurgents and interior ministry death squads.

The White House said on Friday that it would once again launch a public campaign to shore up support among the nearly 80 per cent of Americans who believe a civil war is looming there, much as it did in December when Mr Bush’s poll ratings had also dipped below 40 per cent.

But there seems little chance this will stem falling public and congressional support for the war.

More likely is that Mr Bush’s weakness will threaten other initiatives. The president this month linked a historic pact to welcome India into the club of nuclear nations, but must still sell the agreement to a sceptical Congress. Thomas Donnelly, defence analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said the backlash over the Dubai ports deal could have a spillover effect on India's nuclear deal.

"If you could make a xenophobic case to shut down the ports deal, you could also make a different sort of, possibly pretty strong, xenophobic argument in regard to the transfer of nuclear materials to India, even if it is quasi-racist," said Mr Donnelly.

It may also threaten the president's ability to sustain the effort in Iraq, with larger consequences for US power globally. William Kristol, editor of the neo-conservative Weekly Standard and one of the war’s strongest supporters, warned this week: "The Bush administration leads the west. If the west seems to be on its heels, it is because the administration seems to be on its heels."


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