THE leak-proof discipline of George W. Bush’s White House was broken last week. The crack in the façade of unity that the Bush administration has worked so relentlessly to cultivate was displayed for all to see on the front page of Friday’s Washington Post. Beneath the headline POLICY DIVIDE THWARTS POWELL IN MIDEAST EFFORT, the Post reported that aides to Secretary of State Colin Powell were frustrated with hard-liners such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his top deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, who were criticized for undermining Powell’s peace mission to the Middle East.
Reported staff writer Alan Sipress: "These officials use words like ‘despondent’ and ‘disheartened’ to describe the mood in Foggy Bottom [a reference to the State Department’s Washington headquarters], saying they cannot remember a time in recent years when they have felt so badly beaten up."
It was a brutal capstone to what have been an ugly couple of months for the Bushies. No doubt it was just a coincidence that Bush’s iron-willed alter ego, communications director Karen Hughes, had announced her departure just several days earlier. But for an administration that has prided itself on its ability to stay focused, to speak with one voice, and not to leak, the Bush regime’s recent steps have been remarkably inept.
From the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Venezuelan almost-coup (in which the White House was caught backing antidemocratic forces), from the oil fields of Alaska to the coca farms of Colombia, the clarity and unity that George W. Bush projected in the months immediately following September 11 have dissipated.
Even the war against terrorism has foundered. Last year, Bush basked in the afterglow of having routed the Taliban and Al Qaeda. This year, we are beginning to wake up to the unsettling truth that Osama bin Laden is still at large, and that Afghanistan is once again overrun with violent warlords — a replica of the situation that made the country a hotbed of terrorism in the first place.
As for what’s next, the White House is reportedly putting the finishing touches on a plan to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. But, unlike with the war in Afghanistan, there appears to be little agreement on what it will take to accomplish the Iraq mission, whether our fragile alliances can survive it, or even if it’s necessary, given that US military forces have been restricting Saddam’s freedom of movement since the end of the first Gulf War a decade ago.
In June 1999, Time magazine published a story titled "How George Got His Groove." The then–Texas governor was described as a "late bloomer" who’d quit drinking, found Jesus, and had made the switch from dilettante to do-bee. This week, Time paints a different picture — that of a man who is past both the uncertainty of his first few months in office and the do-no-wrong period that followed the terrorist attacks.
Time’s Michael Duffy wrote that Bush "is now in a third age, more challenging than the previous two, where nothing is simple, and many of the tools that served Bush so well after 9/11 not only don’t help him anymore but actually may be doing him harm. Four weeks after Bush leaped into the Middle East crisis by dispatching Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region, it is clear that the President has come back to where he started, unable or unwilling to end the bickering among his top advisers and struggling to implement a plan because he cannot craft one in the first place."
Newsweek put it more succinctly last week, giving Bush a down arrow in its "Conventional Wisdom" column and noting: "Mideast impotence, Venezuela coup reversal, ANWR drilling loss. A real Bushwhacking."
It’s the sequel, "How W. Lost His Groove." And it may soon be playing on a television set near you.
TO DATE, the media rumbling about Bush’s woes is taking place just below the surface. According to the Tyndall Report, which tracks what the network newscasts are covering, violence in the Middle East has been the lead story for the past few weeks — a tragedy for which Bush obviously cannot be blamed, regardless of his flip-flops. To the administration’s credit, the ceasefire negotiated last weekend may even improve matters — at least for a while. The pedophile crisis that has engulfed the Catholic Church has also chewed up hours that might otherwise have gone to dissecting Bush’s recent failures. Lately it seems that you can’t turn on a talking-head show without seeing a Roman collar — or two or three. That will change.
Bush is still riding high in the polls, though not as high as he was. The most recent New York Times/CBS News survey of Americans 18 and older showed Bush with a rating of 76 percent favorable/15 percent unfavorable. At Bush’s peak, early last October, he scored a 90/5. The president’s current score is much higher than was Bill Clinton’s at the same stage of his presidency (58/37 in April 1994, according to a CNN/Time poll, just six months before the House went Republican).
But Bush can’t expect his high numbers to last indefinitely. Look at how his father’s 90 percent approval rating dissipated in the months after the Gulf War. The Christian Science Monitor recently reported that Republican pollster Matthew Dowd expects Bush’s numbers to continue their "slide down" to "a somewhat realistic level" later this year. The New York Times’ Richard Berke reported on Monday that the Republicans are in danger of losing a majority of governorships this fall for the first time in eight years, which "would carry serious consequences for other Republicans in November and hinder President Bush’s re-election drive in 2004." Wall Street Journal columnist Al Hunt went so far as to write a column headlined a presidency in disarray, complete with a chart comparing the collapse of Bush I’s popularity with the recent downtick in Bush II’s numbers.
What this means is that, nearly seven months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, political life is returning to normal, or something like it. Bush is once again starting to look like the limited, incurious president who lost the popular vote and won the presidency only because of a dubious rush to judgment by the US Supreme Court. It’s possible to criticize him again. It’s even possible to make fun of him. The online magazine Slate has revived its "Bushisms," and the latest — first reported by the New York Daily News — is a doozy: "This foreign-policy stuff is a little frustrating."
Echoes of Will Farrell whining, "This presidentin’ stuff is hard."
THOUGH THE ISRAELI-Palestinian mess is by no means the only, or even the most compelling, example of White House folly, it has certainly attracted the most attention. And it is instructive, because it illuminates the president’s shortcomings, some of which we already knew (his inability to master the nuances of a complicated issue), and some of which have come as something of a surprise (his unwillingness to decide on a course of action and stick to it).
The battle between Israel and the Palestinians, of course, does not just predate Bush’s presidency — its origins lie in the earliest days of the Zionist movement, in the late 19th century, and it has flared up repeatedly since the founding of the Israeli state more than 50 years ago. Nevertheless, Bush inherited a rather discrete problem from Clinton: a Palestinian uprising that dates from mid 2000, when Yasser Arafat walked out of peace negotiations despite an offer from Israel’s then–prime minister, Ehud Barak, that was unprecedented in its generosity. Palestinian terrorist groups — including, apparently, those with direct ties to Arafat — unleashed a wave of suicide bombings (which the White House clumsily tried to label "homicide bombings"). That, in turn, prompted Israel’s current prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to send his army into the West Bank to root out terrorists and to keep Arafat under virtual house arrest.
The ceasefire the United States finally helped broker last weekend is good news, even though early indications are that the shootings and bombings will — at best — slow down rather than stop. For weeks, though, the administration’s approach was defined by confusion and 180-degree turns. Whether you believe the United States should order Sharon to back down and resume peace talks, or instead allow him to unleash Israel’s full power against Palestinian terrorists, the one thing Bush should not have done was pursue both options simultaneously. Yet that’s what he did. He demanded that Sharon withdraw from Palestinian strongholds, and then, when Sharon didn’t, backed off and called the prime minister a "man of peace." He dispatched Colin Powell to try to reinvigorate the peace process, then publicly undermined him while he was in the region.
From the dovish point of view, Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria blasted Bush for caving in to Sharon and stabbing Powell in the back — and asked, "Do we really want to go back to the Carter years?" (During the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the staffs of the hawkish national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and the dovish secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, openly battled for power and influence.)
Speaking for the hawks, National Review editorialized: "The administration has leaked away prestige and credibility with nearly every new statement, and has bent to the logic of the Arab world, which is that nothing can ever be done in the Middle East without bullying Israel first."
And representing political schizophrenics everywhere, the Weekly Standard’s Robert Kagan and William Kristol first blasted the Powell mission, then, later, praised it for "providing diplomatic cover for an ongoing Israeli military operation that has made significant strides against the terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian territories." (You can almost picture Bush channeling Jon Lovitz and saying, "Yeah, that’s what I was doing. Sure. That’s the ticket.")
But at least Bush’s failures in the Middle East appear to be based on a genuine desire for peace. And he is hardly the first statesman to fall short in finding a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. By contrast, some of Bush’s other recent failures are rooted in who he is. And who his friends are.
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