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A Presidency in Disarray
Thursday, April 4, 2002

President Bush's post 9/11 political veneer is cracking.

He has had his worst weeks since the terrorist attacks on America. His Middle East policy (a charitable description) is feckless: While violence raged on the West Bank and in Israel last Saturday, the President appeared clueless. U.S. goals in Afghanistan and Iraq are under siege.

It's only a little better domestically. The self-styled apostle of free trade turned craven and protectionist when confronted by the potent steel and lumber industries. In signing a campaign finance reform bill -- in the dead of the morning with few around -- Mr. Bush was graceless. After terrorism, what is the Bush message?

To be sure, George Bush's poll ratings have slipped only slightly from the stratospheric post-Sept. 11 levels. But conventional Washington wisdom underrates his vulnerabilities.

"We may be seeing a reprise of Bush One," ventures independent pollster John Zogby. Six months after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, that President Bush was still riding high, but a collapse was on the horizon.

Not surprisingly, this White House prefers parallels to two other predecessors: George W. Bush, they say, is like Ronald Reagan, a man of principle, who says what he thinks and does what he believes. And he's the anti-Clinton, above crass calculations and petty politics.


Imagine the outcry if Mr. Clinton's United Nations representatives voted against the Israelis on a Saturday morning and the president was trotted out only hours later expressing a different view. Or if President Clinton sent his vice president on a highly publicized overseas mission that turned out disastrously.

Remember "amateur hour" in foreign policy? And what a hypocrite Mr. Clinton would have been called if, as a supposed free trader, he raised taxes, in the form of higher tariffs, to placate important electoral and contributor bases.

Let's go to the Gipper. Suppose a campaign-finance reform bill, authored by an arch-enemy and with provisions he opposed on principle, was sent to his desk. Ronald Reagan might have reasoned the principles really mattered and vetoed the bill. Or, if not, he would have graciously signed it -- and taken credit for it. Mr. Bush, who a passive White House press corps continues to tell us is a strong or at least secure president, didn't want to ruffle the right-wing. Even more, he couldn't stomach a signing celebration with his enemy, John McCain.

The Bush political advisers don't want him to use political capital in a Middle East quagmire. They have a point. How do you play honest broker without pressuring the Israeli tanks to back off, yet how do you criticize Israel for responding to terrorism as we did?

Septuagenarians Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat never will negotiate a peace. And what follows isn't encouraging. Mr. Arafat is a duplicitous political coward, but if the Israelis get rid of him, his successor likely will be more radical. By late this year, Mr. Sharon probably will be replaced by former Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who would take an even harder line.

Yet the only hope for a lower level of violence and preconditions that later, under different leaders, might produce an accord, is an active U.S. engagement and leadership of the sort this administration eschewed. The smartest move -- one that would test how secure George W. Bush and Colin Powell truly are -- would be to enlist Democrat George Mitchell, author of a peace proposal, to direct a concerted U.S. effort. Don't hold your breath.

The connection between Israeli-Palestinian violence and toppling Saddam Hussein appears to have surfaced only during Vice President Cheney's trip to the region. Six months ago most hawks on Iraq expected that the campaign would either be successful by now or well underway.

The situation in Afghanistan also is troubling. In a victory for Defense Chief Don Rumsfeld, Colin Powell's hope to send a sizable international peacekeeping force into Afghanistan has been rejected. The likely result: Iran will control western Afghanistan, radical Muslims will control much of the East, heroin and terrorism will flourish and the courageous new Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai, will be restricted to a small enclave around Kabul.

The president seems oblivious to the recent warning of former United States Ambassador Richard Holbrooke that "if Afghanistan is important enough to wage war over -- and it is -- it's equally important to stabilize and rebuild" that country, even if that's "long and costly."

This has upset Mr. Karzai, the nervous Pakistanis and much of the anti-terrorism alliance. Indeed, public opinion, not elite opinion, all over the world, has turned decidedly negative on George W. Bush and his politics. Mr. Zogby soon will release a survey of five Arab and five non-Arab countries which will show clear identification with American culture and the American people but with growing opposition to George W. Bush and his policies. Foreign policy shouldn't be conducted by international polls, but it's tough to marshal support for efforts like toppling Saddam if leaders face public resentment.

Domestically, unlike his father, George W. Bush doesn't face an economic downturn, but he too has a limited agenda. Midterm elections are about turnout. Democrats have more upside with the emergence of health care, particularly prescription drugs, and worries over Social Security, as major issues this fall.

Enron, by itself, isn't a big deal politically. But this administration's willingness to give business interests -- particularly energy -- a blank check presents an opening for Democrats. The argument: If these guys control everything -- the presidency, House and Senate -- these special interests will bankrupt you.

President Bush may be aided by the timidity of the opposition. At periodic caucus meetings, Democrats hear from consultants who warn them against raising taxes, Enron, the Middle East or most any other controversies.

But high poll numbers notwithstanding, public embrace of Mr. Bush's leadership is softening. A small indicator: Opening Day of the baseball season in Baltimore Monday the president, a huge baseball fan, appeared on the centerfield JumboTron, amid patriotic flourishes, with a message; the crowd ignored him. Several minutes later the University of Maryland basketball coach, Gary Williams, appeared on the same screen to a tremendous ovation.