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.
On the domestic front, Bush initially said he would work with the Democrats. Then he made several moves that antagonized them, such as reaffirming his support for conservative judges, renominating the controversial John Bolton as United Nations ambassador, and calling for congressional approval of warrantless eavesdropping to catch terrorists.
"It may be the president has to go through this period of defiance to show the Democratic Party he can't be intimidated," says Bill Galston, a Democratic strategist and former White House adviser to President Bill Clinton, "and then he'll sit down and talk to the Democrats about matters of mutual concern." That would follow Bush's pattern as Texas governor, when he worked with Democrats to form a governing coalition in the Legislature.
Says Ken Duberstein, former White House chief of staff to Ronald Reagan: "What Bush has to do is to reach out in deed as well as in word. Some of it is symbolic, but an awful lot of it is the hard work of consultation, cooperation, and compromise."
Soundings. U.S. News has learned that since Election Day, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten has been sounding out Washington insiders about new ideas and the prospects for compromise. Bolten wants Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to become more involved in lobbying Congress on trade, taxes, spending restraint, regulation, and Social Security. Paulson, former head of Goldman Sachs, has strong credibility on Capitol Hill, and Bolten reasons that he might be able to create a more collegial atmosphere.
Yet there are many doubters--and some internal signs that polarization politics will make a comeback. "Josh will try to reach out, but someone will cut his legs off, and that someone is [chief political adviser] Karl Rove," says a senior Republican who informally advises the White House.
"Josh understands the difficult road ahead and the importance of outreach," adds another GOP adviser to the administration. "But Rove doesn't want to take on the right wing"--especially in view of the resentment among many Republicans that Bush waited until the day after the elections to oust unpopular Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. An earlier dismissal might have helped GOP candidates.
Rove argues that Bush should continue to govern from the right. And he has convinced the president that GOP losses in the midterm elections were a product of unique circumstances--corruption scandals and media negativity about Iraq. "It looks like they've decided to be true to the ones that brought them to the dance," says an adviser to the White House. That means the conservative base is likely to hold sway. And that the president is headed for tough times on Capitol Hill.
This story appears in the December 4, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.