[OUTLOOK]The winter of Bush’s discontent

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[OUTLOOK]The winter of Bush’s discontent

Spring may be on the way, but it has certainly been the winter of President Bush’s discontent. The war against terrorism has been going badly. Violence in Iraq continues to grow, and increasingly it appears to be unfolding along sectarian lines. Sunnis are attacking Shiite mosques, and the Shiites are engaged in revenge killings. Iraqi security forces appear unable to impose order, and this may delay incipient plans to begin reducing U.S. military deployments in that troubled land. Progress in identifying a new Iraqi government has stalled ― at least for the moment.
Nor are American troubles in the Muslim world confined to Iraq. The Iranians have resumed their uranium enrichment activities in defiance of both threats and enticements from Europe, Russia and the United States. Ariel Sharon’s immobilizing stroke along with Hamas’ victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections has sucked much of the air out of the peace process in the Middle East. The public mood in the region remains highly polarized, and for all of Karen Hughes’ media savvy, the United States is taking a beating along with the Europeans for the publication of Danish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Secretary of State Rice has been back in the Middle East this week, where the Egyptians, among others, enjoyed reminding her that America cannot preach democracy in Palestine, and then rebuke the winners, demanding concessions from them without making a serious effort to push Israel to display more diplomatic flexibility.
Nor has the president found much relief on the home front. His second term agenda ― social security reform and simplification of the tax system ― appears dead in the water. Worse yet, the administration’s feckless response to the Katrina hurricane has been back in the news; an unflattering House GOP report on the Homeland Security Department’s mishandling of the natural disaster put it there. The wrangle over NSA wiretapping has exposed a rift between Republican moderates and the White House, while sharpening the partisan divide with the Democrats. And the Abramoff affair has left politicians in both parties anxious about allegations about sleazy dealings with K Street lobbyists, and scurrying for cover. Yet it is the president’s party that is most vulnerable politically, because it controls both the legislative and executive branches of government.
And this is, of course, an election year. With the president well into his second term, and the 2008 presidential sweepstakes virtually underway, Congress is more assertive, and politics more partisan than usual ― if that is possible. The odds generally favor the opposition party in mid-term elections, and the GOP is running scared.
Things have been going so badly for the president that he has been able to garner little credit for a U.S. economy that is performing exceedingly well. When Vice President Cheney accidentally shot an acquaintance on a Texas ranch a few weeks ago, a loyalist Republican and former speechwriter for President Bush’s father promptly wrote an op- ed for the Wall Street Journal suggesting it was time for the vice president to step down from his office to give some other Republican worthy a head start in the quest for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination.
The accumulated bad news in the Middle East is a political as well as a foreign policy problem. It is providing Democratic politicians incentives and opportunities to turn the “soft-on-terrorism” card that Karl Rove has regularly used against them back on the White House. This was evident in recent Congressional reaction to news that the Treasury Department had approved a government-owned Dubai firm’s bid to buy out a British company that currently operates a number of major American ports. Democratic senators from New York and New Jersey moved swiftly to promise legislation that would nullify the deal. The president has threatened a veto, but Republican leaders in the Senate like Bill Frist are looking for cover.
Some observers worry that a xenophobic mood is taking root in Washington, and that further expressions of “nativism” are to be expected. Perhaps. But I would not bet my mortgage on it.
The president has been a stout defender of free trade, and is among the world’s most stalwart promoters of the Doha round. He has resisted protectionist initiatives aimed at China in both the House and Senate. He is pushing forward with plans to negotiate a free trade agreement with South Korea. He has consistently sought to keep the American economy open to the world, and our borders open to immigrants.
If this is becoming a somewhat tougher sell, it is perhaps because the administration has frequently made much political capital from accusations that the Democrats retain a pre-9/11 mindset that fails to take the terrorist threat seriously. Many Democrats now see a heaven-sent chance to position themselves to the right of the president on a national security issue in an election year. Who can blame them? But the question is: Can the president in the face of such unrelenting tough news rally his own troops to stand behind him?

* The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.

by Michael H. Armacost
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