West Wing The Comeback of a War President

He may be America's most unpopular politician, but George W. Bush is no lame duck. As a wartime president, Bush dominates the political agenda. He is discreetly influencing his party's choice of presidential candidate while committing his country to an aggressive foreign policy, the effects of which are likely to continue well beyond his term in office.

By Gabor Steingart in Washington


President Bush at Fort Jackson on Friday.
AP

President Bush at Fort Jackson on Friday.

One way to imagine Washington is as a huge emergency room. Thousands of observers stand behind thick panes of glass, scrutinizing life within the Western superpower's innermost sanctum. As they look on, they form an opinion of its current state of health.

A door occasionally opens and one of the power brokers walks out. As soon as he leaves the observers return to their plate glass observation room. They weigh and evaluate everything they hear and everything they see. The product of this appraisal, a set of daily impressions, is then dispatched around the globe like some kind of medical bulletin.

For some time now, this bulletin has been telling the world that the military campaign the president has been waging has failed, and that the man in the Oval Office is barely breathing. He may have another 15 months to run the show in Washington, but the truth, according to this bulletin, is that he had lost much of his political power. The term the bulletin's writers use for this type of president is sufficiently descriptive: lame duck.

It doesn't take much to work out that the observers behind the plate glass window don't like the president. Far from feverishly backing his causes, they are adamantly opposed to him, and for good reason. They are eager to witness his speedy political demise.

But Bush is refusing to do them the favor. In fact, he is doing the opposite by recovering. Instead of destroying the president, the ongoing public hostility has only made him stronger. Bush, the man who has become firmly ensconced as a wartime president, has scored three successes recently. One can either welcome them or feel threatened by them, but to ignore them would be a mistake.

First, there has been noticeable improvement on the Iraqi war front. Unless the Pentagon statistics Bush recited on Friday in a speech to soldiers at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, are made up, the new Iraq strategy appears to be working. The number of weekly bombing attacks on US troops has dropped by half, and the number of US military deaths is the lowest in a year and a half. At the same time, US forces are arresting or killing more than 1,500 terrorist "thugs," as Bush called them, each month. If the military successes continue, public opinion toward Bush and his Republicans could soon improve. Americans are not against war itself, they just don't like losing.

Second, Bush dominates his party's search for a suitable presidential candidate, and he does so without voicing a preference for any of the candidates. Instead, he exerts control by dictating the job description. According to Bush, the right man for the job would not be an economic expert or a seasoned diplomat, but a sheriff, a man with nerves of steel, a man who can lead. Of course, for Bush being a strong leader means, first and foremost, leading the nation into war.

All of the Republican candidates are going to great lengths to display at least a minimum of toughness and boldness, along with a healthy dose of lunacy. Vietnam veteran John McCain dubbed his campaign tour the "No Surrender Tour." In an article in Foreign Affairs, former New York Mayor and current Republican frontrunner Rudy Giuliani offers an outline of his foreign policy that practically reeks of blood.

America must revamp its military, Giuliani writes, adding that it "will not be cheap, but it is necessary." For him, Afghanistan and Iraq "are only two battlegrounds in a wider war." The next president, Giuliani writes, must "mobilize the 9/11 generation for the momentous tasks ahead."

Giuliani is currently polling just behind Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, which brings us to the president's third, most spectacular success, most clearly visible on the other side of the political spectrum. The issues important to the Democrats -- poverty, healthcare reform and the looming climate catastrophe -- pale in comparison to the Iraq war.

The Bush agenda -- wage war! -- is the country's agenda. His goal -- victory! -- sets the tone for the 2008 presidential race. And the mood he has created -- fear of further terrorist attacks -- has taken hold among the majority of voters. For the American public, even a narrow-minded view of reality is still a reality.

In this mood, Bush is driving the Democrats along like a sheepdog herding sheep. He asks for congressional approval for each new expenditure in his war, putting the Democrats in a difficult position. The US Senate recently approved a measure to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. Hillary Clinton reluctantly voted in favor of the measure. When Bush asked for tighter sanctions on Iran, the Democrats nodded grimly. While Bush looks at scenarios for attacking Iran, Senator Clinton, feeling the need to demonstrate her ability to lead the country in a war, insists that all options must remain on the table.

In next November's election, Americans will be voting for more than just someone who can address their healthcare problems. They'll want someone who, as president, can also be a credible commander-in-chief.

Until then, George W. Bush will be a war president with all the powers that come with the job. In this situation, the US Constitution gives the president practically free rein. A lot could happen in the coming months, including the bombing of Iran's nuclear facilities. Being isolated worldwide has made the president more tough-minded, but it has also liberated him.

His legacy will leave its mark on American foreign policy for a long time to come. He has gone too far to allow for any quick reversals. A war is already underway on two fronts in Afghanistan and Iraq, a process of escalation with Iran has begun, plans for a worldwide missile defense shield are thriving and the resulting tensions with Russia have already been accepted as a necessary evil. It will not be easy to halt the momentum of these processes.

Behind the plate-glass window, preparations are underway for the birth of a new president. Based on everything that's been going on behind that panel so far it's clear that the new president will be no angel of peace. Instead, the successor to this wartime president will likely be yet another wartime president.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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