Readers know that we have been tracking one issue almost above all others since last fall: the strength of the Bush presidency. The question that emerged following Hurricane Katrina was whether the administration would become a classic failed presidency or whether, having flirted with disaster, it would recover. Last week, the first indicator (apart from routine approval polls) came in: Congress, in essence, blocked a deal that would have put a state-run company from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in charge of several U.S. ports.
Far more important than the ports issue or congressional assertiveness over the deal was the fact that the revolt was led by Republicans. Democratic opposition was predictable and uninteresting, but the open rebellion among Republicans was far less predictable and highly significant. In fact, it was of extraordinary importance.
In our view, the business deal in question -- the acquisition by Dubai Ports World of a British company that has managed the ports up to now -- does not increase the threat to U.S. national security, which is substantial regardless of who manages the ports. In the broadest sense, whether the UAE gets a contract to run the ports is neither here nor there. If they got it, it would mean little; if they were denied it, U.S. relations with the Islamic world would not get much worse. It is not an important issue.
What is a vitally important issue is whether President George W. Bush has the ability to govern. Presidents, unlike prime ministers, do not leave office when they lose the confidence of voters; the Framers did not want a parliamentary system. What happens, rather, is that a president can lose the ability to govern -- either because he cannot get needed legislation passed, or because Congress blocks his initiatives. Congress controls the purse strings and can, by withholding funds, shut down presidential initiatives. That is how the Vietnam War ended: Congress cut off all military aid to South Vietnam, and it collapsed. The idea that a president can continue to govern without congressional support, because of the inherent powers of the presidency, simply isn't true. You wind up with a paralyzed government.
Consider that Bush recently returned from India with a series of agreements on U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation. It is far from certain that Bush will be able to muster the two-thirds vote needed in the Senate in order to get a treaty passed; there is substantial unease in Congress about U.S. acquiescence to any nuclear proliferation, and there is not a powerful pro-Indian lobby on the Hill. Now, it also is possible that Bush will be able to get the votes. But the problem that is emerging is that the president no longer has the ability to negotiate with full confidence. Any foreign leader in negotiations will be aware that the president's word is not final and there will have to be dealings with Congress as well. Since reaching an agreement with the U.S. president, and then having it repudiated by Congress, is more than a little embarrassing for foreign leaders, they will be much more careful in making agreements with Bush -- and much less susceptible to any threats he might issue, since it would not be clear that he has the backing to carry them out.
Context of the Controversy
As we have previously discussed, Bush is not the first president to face political paralysis; most who did encountered it over foreign policy issues. Wilson collapsed over the League of Nations, Truman over Korea. Johnson collapsed over Vietnam, and Nixon had Watergate with a touch of Vietnam. Carter was done in by the Iranian hostage situation. But there is one difference between these and the current president: Bush is only one year into his second term. He has just reached a critical low in approval ratings and Republicans have begun distancing themselves. If he doesn't recover, it will be one of the longest failed presidencies in history. There would be three years in which foreign powers would operate with diminished concern for U.S. wishes and responses. Three years is a very long time.
It is important to understand why this has happened. The ports deal does not stand alone. It was preceded by what, in retrospect, is appearing to have had a substantial effect: the Danish cartoon controversy. That affair had a startling effect in the West and the United States that is still reverberating.
Western views of the Muslim world appear to have been divided into two camps. One camp holds that radical Islamists and jihadists are a marginal force in the Muslim world, which is dominated by a moderate mainstream. The other holds that Islam is an inherently intolerant and violent religion, and that the idea of a moderate tendency within Islam amounts to self-delusion. Those who took the first view argued that the extreme response the United States has taken to al Qaeda has weakened moderates in the Muslim world, played into the hands of the radicals and increased the danger of terrorism. Those who took the second view argued that a state of war exists, not between the United States and al Qaeda, but between the West and Islam.
The cartoon affair weakened the first school of thought and strengthened the second. The publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed generated a massive outpouring of anger from the Muslim world. Some very publicly called for the death of the cartoonists, Danes, Scandinavians and so on, and even moderate Muslims argued that the West was insensitive to their religious feelings. This Muslim response ran directly counter to the Western view, which holds freedom of expression above all values. Moreover, the idea that Muslims have a right not to be offended struck many as outrageous. Since Muslims do not believe that everyone has a right to publicly express negative opinions when it comes to God and his prophet, the collision was absolute.
In the context of the United States, the cartoon controversy should have strengthened Bush politically, by strengthening his support base among national-security conservatives. But Bush did not reach out with an effort to draw those who were offended by the Muslim response into his coalition. Instead of defending the right to free speech regardless of who is offended, Bush tried to reach out to Muslims, expressing regret over the pain the cartoons had caused. In other words, rather than capitalizing on the event to broaden his political base, he left his own supporters wondering what he was talking about. Some of these supporters saw the Islamic response to the cartoons as vindication of their view that all Muslims are potentially dangerous and enemies. Thus, while Bush was reaching out to the Islamic world, a key part of his coalition was becoming even more radical.
The GOP Mutiny
In the wake of the cartoon affair, this faction saw the transfer of U.S. ports to Arab hands as completely unacceptable under any circumstances. They didn't care if the UAE had cooperated with the United States against jihadists or not. They recalled that at least one of the Sept. 11 operatives was a UAE citizen, and they viewed UAE citizens the same way they tended to view all Muslim moderates -- as appearing to be moderate but ultimately falling on the side of the radicals. Whatever the truth might be, this faction was not prepared to collaborate when it came to the ports.
Democrats, like Sen. Charles Schumer, saw an opening and went for it. That's to be expected, it's what the opposition does. But the response among Republican national-security conservatives was visceral and explosive. Even if Republican senators and congressman did not agree with the views held by their constituents, the pressure they were under still would have been enormous. Thus, they broke with Bush in the face of his early threat to veto any legislation blocking the ports deal. By the end, the president was in retreat, very publicly unable to get his way.
This has not happened before. The president's Social Security initiative died a sort of death, but an outright repudiation of Bush led by Republicans is unprecedented. This likely would not have happened if Bush had not slipped in the polls as he did -- but on the other hand, a lot of his slippage has come from within his coalition. Of late, it was the Republicans who were bolting. Within the party, Bush has held the support of the social conservatives, and he continues to hold the economic conservatives and business interests. But the national security conservatives splintered, and it is not clear that they will come back aboard.
Iraq, Investigations and Fatigue
It is significant that the White House overlooked the political opportunity presented by the cartoon affair and then blundered with the handling of the ports issue. The White House under Bush has had its defects, but these kinds of mistakes have not been common. When one also considers the way Vice President Dick Cheney's hunting accident was handled, the crisp cadences that marked the old Bush White House seem to be gone. We are not talking here about policy matters, but simply the mechanics of running the White House -- of knowing that the UAE deal was about to break.
The core problem for the administration is, of course, Iraq. No matter how much progress one thinks is being made, the fact is that the progress is far from solid, and from the standpoint of American voters, it doesn't seem particularly persuasive. Bush has burned through a huge amount of political capital because of the war. In the end, it is not the cartoons or the ports that did this to Bush, but above all else, his inability to devise an end game in Iraq.
But there are other important, if lesser, considerations. One factor, which we have mentioned before, is that Bush's staff is exhausted. There is no one very important around him who hasn't been there from the beginning. Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, Chief of Staff Andrew Card -- all have been on the job for five years. Not only is there burnout, but they have made their share of mistakes. The president's unusual resistance to bringing in fresh blood is clearly damaging his ability to operate the political system.
We suspect that this situation is compounded by two ongoing investigations. One, concerning the Plame affair, has already resulted in an indictment for Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, who is obviously under heavy pressure from the prosecutor to name other names. Rumors (not worthy of the name intelligence) say that Rove is well in the prosecutor's sights now, and that he is trying to gather evidence against Cheney as well. Lobbyist Jack Abramoff is another concern; in a recent article in Vanity Fair, Abramoff asserted that plenty of senior Republicans knew what he was doing and had no problem with it. While Libby might remain loyal to the administration, Abramoff, it seems, is going to look out for Abramoff. He is clearly talking, and we wonder how much the White House is preoccupied with those investigations. Something is on their minds aside from governing.
The Geopolitical Implications
Whatever is going on, there could be profound geopolitical consequences. The United States is the center of gravity of the international system. When a failed presidency is on the table, the world begins to operate in a different way. The North Koreans and the Chinese, for example, wouldn't negotiate seriously with the United States while Truman was president; they waited for Eisenhower. The North Vietnamese waited for Nixon. Not only did they not want to negotiate with a president who couldn't guarantee agreements, but in fact, the feeling was that time was on their side after Watergate crippled Nixon. The fact that Nixon no longer had any military options that wouldn't be blocked by Congress certainly contributed to the final collapse of Saigon. And the Iranians wouldn't negotiate with Carter over the hostages; they waited for Reagan.
The United States has some crucial negotiations under way. In Iraq, it is trying to broker a deal between the Shia and Sunnis. Its ability to do so, however, depends to a great degree on the perception by both parties that Bush can deliver on both threats and promises. Further complicating matters, the British have announced plans for a drawdown in Iraq, even mentioning a timetable. There are broad implications here. First, if Bush no longer is able to provide guarantees for what is said at the bargaining table, Iraq will suddenly take a dramatically different course. Second, if the Iranians know that Bush doesn't have military options in Iraq and cannot engage in covert negotiations authoritatively, that entire dynamic is changed. Similarly, if the Pakistanis conclude they have nothing to fear from Bush, then that changes everything for Islamabad. Go through the list, from Russia to China, and we see easily what it could mean.
Now, can Bush recover from this weakened position? It is possible, but the historical record for such recoveries is not good. Most presidents who have sunk to such low approval ratings and have a rebellion within their party never recover. The reason is that a psychological barrier has been broken -- and a political one as well. In the GOP, everyone is looking at the 2006 elections. Congress members have to run for re-election; the president doesn't. Bush and Cheney have terrible ratings. It is unlikely, then, that campaign swings into contested areas by either of them will aid the party's chances. At the moment, staying far away from both officials is the most rational strategy for congressional candidates. And to do that, senators and congressmen have to publicly show their independence.
Bush needs a win as badly as Truman, Johnson, Nixon and Carter did. The Koreans, Vietnamese and Iranians made certain those presidents didn't get one. The difference here, the chief wild card, is that those presidents measured their remaining time in terms of a year or so (though Nixon didn't know how short his time actually would be). Bush has three years left in office.
If the Koreans had to face three years of Truman after negotiations started, they might have acted differently. In Iraq, it could be that American weakness compels the Sunnis and the Shia to sort things out themselves.