An Englishwoman in Washington on why, despite a lack of serious political opposition, the Bushies can’t do right for doing wrong.
The past month has been a trying time for the Bush administration. Nothing seems to have gone according to plan. A series of issues ignited one mini crisis after another, each of them sending the administration reeling.
The publication of Bush’s old National Guard record, the public hearings of the 9/11 commission, the rising number of US casualties in Iraq, the looming 30 June deadline for the nominal handover of power to an Iraqi administration – all have taken their toll on the Bush camp.
The publication of photos showing American troops abusing Iraqi prisoners is the most recent blow to an already wobbling administration. There is now a palpable sense that things could start unravelling for Bush. In Washington, newsroom speculation is rife that defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld will resign before the weekend is out.
Public support has also shifted. According to a poll published by USA Today, conducted shortly after the Iraqi prisoner photos were shown on national TV, 62 per cent of Americans are now dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country – almost a 10 per cent rise from a month ago (1).
Ironically, however, it is not immediately apparent why events should be causing Bush such political difficulties. Many of his worst nightmares centre on the war in Iraq. But in the US political arena, at least, Bush faces no coherent opposition to his Iraq policy.
John Kerry, the presumptive Democrat presidential hopeful, has voiced ‘concern’ over Iraq, but in reality he has no clear policy alternative. Occasionally he warns that we need to remove the ‘Made in America’ label from the occupation and give the United Nations a full role in rebuilding Iraq. But he has also argued that the USA must ‘stay the course’ and finish what it started.
Some in Bush’s own Republican Party have raised concerns about instability in Iraq, but their concern, too, is a long way from a serious political challenge to the administration’s policies.
Uncharacteristically, the president has gone out of his way to speak to the press in recent weeks, in an attempt to clarify his intentions. On 13 April, he shut down primetime TV in order to address the nation directly about Iraq and to answer press questions in what was only his third press conference since coming to office in 2000.
He also agreed to give direct evidence to the 9/11 commission – albeit with vice president Dick Cheney by his side, and without taking an oath. And he spoke to Arab TV directly this week, to condemn American troops’ abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
Yet no end of explaining or talking to the press will resolve Bush’s difficulties. This is not, as many Bush critics like to imagine, because he is especially challenged when it comes to public speaking; his problems lie not in his delivery, but in his message.
The Bush administration is reeling despite a lack of serious political pressure and an unprecedented opportunity to put its message across because it has lost all sense of purpose or mission or self-belief in what it is doing.
The administration seems to lack any political direction. It spins from one crisis to another because on every issue its starting point is a defensive one, and its central aim seems to be to make good and court public opinion. It can do nothing more than react to difficulties because it has no overriding or higher goal towards which it is striving.
In such circumstances being more open with the press and the public ends up making things worse. Bush’s much-heralded recent press conference was a case in point. His intention was to inspire confidence in the administration’s policy on Iraq, but with no real policy to defend the net effect was for the president to appear anaemic and lacking in ideas about how to resolve America’s difficulties.
The revelations that American troops have been abusing Iraqi prisoners give an even clearer example of how things can unravel. Bush started the week by saying that the abusers were a few bad apples and their exposure to the world demonstrated how democracy works. But without any real conviction or confidence he was unable to hold the line. Within days he had become, once again, defensive and apologetic.
By the end of the week the abuses were ‘a stain on our country’s honour and our country’s reputation’. And in what the New York Times called an ‘extraordinary display of finger-pointing in an administration led by a man who puts a high premium on order and loyalty’, Bush took the unprecedented step of admonishing defence secretary Rumsfeld for failing to notify him about what was really happening (2).
Such an implosion can only increase the demands for Bush to go further, to make even more contrite apologies and to sack Rumsfeld.
Bush is slipping in the polls not because of Senator Kerry’s great success or because the US public are especially sympathetic to the plight of Iraqi prisoners. Rather, he is losing support because his own lack of direction leaves the administration exposed. In such a climate even minor difficulties have the potential of unleashing a political crisis that can haunt the administration.
spiked-issue: War on Iraq
(1) Americans express worry, Bush support drops in poll, USA Today, 6 May 2004
(2) Rumsfeld chastised by president for his handling of Iraq scandal, Nwe York Times, 6 May 2004
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