Bush Surging to Comeback?
Der Spiegel’s Gabor Steingart has written “The Comeback of a War President,” the first positive piece on President Bush I’ve seen (outside the usual suspects) since roughly since maybe the spring of 2005.
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.
The first sentence is obviously true, even if it goes against the conventional wisdom. That says little about Bush; it’s just the nature of his office. The second sentence, though, is a harder sell. Certainly, it conflicts with the wisdom of the recent “Most Influential American Conservatives” assessment.
Steingart makes two points in his defense:
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.
That much is more-or-less right. Whether because of the Surge or a combination of domestic factors, Al Qaeda in Iraq is on the ropes, casualties are down, and various other indicators on the security front are positive. And Americans desperately want to feel good about any war this costly, so they’ll naturally rally if the good news is sustained. None of that means that the war will be “won” under its original terms, though.
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.
I’m much less sure of this piece. Yes, Bush is setting the stage for the foreign policy debate. It’s far from clear, though, that he’s getting his way.
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.
It’s true that “toughness” continues to be a rallying cry in presidential politics. The country is tired of war, though, and the overwhelming consensus of the foreign policy Establishment of both parties is against war with Iran. Indeed, thus far, Bush himself has been against said war, strong language about what’s “unacceptable” notwithstanding.