The President is fighting a multifront war with allies in very short supply
Air Force One was briefly grounded in Ho Chi Minh City last week because of a brake malfunction-not the most auspicious way for President Bush to end his first trip to Vietnam. But to many in Washington, the metaphor of a presidency stuck in place had a telling ring of truth.
The problem is that, in one area after another, Bush appears to be bogged down with no clear path out of the political swamp. The feisty new Democratic majority in Congress is preparing to challenge him on everything from Iraq policy to the minimum wage, and many Republicans are setting their own course as Bush's job-approval ratings hover below 40 percent.
To be sure, Bush isn't quite a lame duck. He plans to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Jordan this week to bolster the Baghdad government and perhaps generate some good news, and his aides are casting about for fresh ideas to rejuvenate the president's second term. But many in official Washington and around the world are ready to turn a page on the Bush presidency. His trip to Asia last week didn't accomplish much of substance. And, to the chagrin of White House officials, his visit to Vietnam generated a rash of news stories comparing the Iraq war to America's quagmire in Southeast Asia three decades ago.
As usual, Iraq is Job 1. But as sectarian violence spreads, two developments further unsettled U.S. policymakers last week. Syria re-established diplomatic relations with Iraq, even as the Bush administration accused the Damascus regime of fueling the Iraqi insurgency. And the Shiite-dominated government of Iran-once described by Bush as part of an "axis of evil"-offered to help "stabilize" Iraq by convening an international conference. This came as the Bush administration was trying to isolate Tehran because of its growing nuclear program. If nothing else, these moves showed that the Mideast remains a complicated region, often resistant to U.S. influences. And all this comes as the new Democratic majority in Congress prepares hearings into Iraq policy early next year, as the Pentagon formally reviews its options, as the bipartisan Iraq Study Group readies its own report, and as incoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates tries to find a way out of the morass.
Assault. Bush's approach--which he framed last week as "We'll succeed unless we quit"--is now under assault as never before, even among senior Republicans. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a hawk on Iraq and a front-runner for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, says he still favors sending thousands more troops into the war zone in one last attempt to stabilize the country. But McCain now concedes that the war as it is being fought is unwinnable. Even former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who advocated nothing short of victory, has changed his tune. Kissinger, an architect of the Vietnam policies under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, said the goal as envisioned by President Bush--creation of a democratic government without sectarian warfare--is no longer achievable.
The Pentagon's internal review apparently involves three options, none of which the president was willing to consider a year ago: "go big" with a large infusion of U.S. troops, perhaps tens of thousands, to win the conflict outright; "go long" with a modest addition of 20,000 to 30,000 troops to improve training of the Iraqis while continuing a lengthy American occupation; and, finally, "go home." Bush said he hasn't decided future troop levels.