By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 27, 2006
The latest crisis in the Middle East has disrupted President Bush's plans domestically and internationally at a sensitive juncture, reopening divisions with allies abroad and jeopardizing attempts to restore public confidence at home, according to officials, analysts and diplomats.
The discord at a conference in Rome yesterday over a proposed cease-fire in Israel and Lebanon underscored the widening gap between the United States and Europe over how to stop the fighting. And the images of mayhem from the two-week-old war, combined with the rising death toll in Iraq, have further rattled a domestic audience that polls show was already uncertain about Bush's leadership.
For the president, the timing could not be much worse. In a second term marked by one setback after another, the White House was in the midst of a rebuilding effort aimed at a political comeback before November's critical midterm elections. Now the president faces the challenge of responding to events that seem to be spinning out of control again, all but sidelining his domestic agenda for the moment and complicating his effort to rally the world to stop nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.
The crisis imperils one of Bush's signature ambitions. This is a president who eschewed Middle East peacemaking of the past as futile, embarking instead on a grand plan to remake the region into a more democratic, peaceful place. A year ago, a wave of reform seemed to take hold. Yet today radicalism is on the rise, Iran is believed to be closer to nuclear weapons and Bush is sending thousands more troops to Baghdad to quell spiraling violence.
"You've got Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories aflame, you've got Iraq still aflame, and you've got the Iran issue now unresolved," said Carlos Pascual, a senior State Department official until this year. "It has hurt the U.S. internationally because it has only reinforced in everyone's mind that the U.S. was not being strategic, it was not looking ahead to how to handle the whole panoply of issues in a way that's both realistic and effective."
Bush advisers who have been buffeted in the past year by a catastrophic hurricane, rising gasoline prices, a failed Social Security initiative, Republican revolts, criminal investigations and a relentless overseas war said they have grown accustomed to constant crisis. "This is a new normal for our administration in the last couple years," said one senior official. "You begin to expect the unexpected."
The priority for Bush will be turning short-term predicament into long-term opportunity. "Right now, with the images coming out of Lebanon, the situation with people trying to get out, I'm sure that's unsettling for people," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. "But as this thing unfolds over the next few weeks, and they see the international response, it could provide a moment when the public sees the stakes as well and why we're doing what we're doing in the broader Middle East."
For now, at least, Bush's strong defense of Israel's right to respond to Hezbollah attacks has generated bipartisan support in Congress, which gives him some room to maneuver. If anything, some Democrats are trying to position themselves as even more pro-Israel than he is, attacking the president because Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has condemned Israel's military strikes in southern Lebanon.
But the stark difference between the pro-Israel stance in Washington and the criticism of Israel in many European and Arab capitals underlines the impact on Bush's foreign policy. Bush has labored since his reelection to mend the tattered relations with European allies following the Iraq invasion and, in the view of many analysts, had succeeded to a large extent.
He was ready to reap the benefit of this diplomacy when he left for Europe and the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg earlier this month, confident that he had a broad consensus with Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China to take stronger measures against Iran for defying them on its nuclear program.
By the time Bush arrived in St. Petersburg, however, the latest conflict had broken out and Iran was shoved onto the back burner. Although European leaders agreed that Hezbollah was to blame for the fighting, they condemned what they called Israel's disproportionate response and insisted on an immediate cease-fire, while Bush resisted any instant cessation of hostilities and effectively gave Israel leeway to destroy as much of Hezbollah as it could.
Moreover, the administration appeared uncertain at first how to respond, some analysts said. When the G-8 countries adopted a statement calling for consideration of an international force in southern Lebanon after hostilities end, some U.S. officials all but rejected the idea. But now it is a centerpiece of what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is trying to accomplish.
"It's starting to overstrain the system," said Pascual, now vice president of the Brookings Institution. "You've got a very small team who are really at the core of dealing with all of these issues. In my view, you can start to see some mistakes being made."
With the Middle East at the forefront, the Iran issue has bogged down again at the U.N. Security Council as Russia resists a tough resolution threatening sanctions, even though in the view of U.S. officials it had agreed to that approach at a meeting in Paris shortly before the Middle East conflict erupted. Likewise, North Korea has vanished from the radar screen, just weeks after its provocative missile tests.
Instead of leading the coalition, then, Bush is explaining his position to allies, reviving memories of his first-term doctrinal differences. "When it looks like we're the odd man out, it tends to cement certain images," said Dennis Ross, a Middle East negotiator under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. "The U.S. is actually doing the right thing. But are we seen as being active enough in terms of putting together a constructive plan?"
Ross said Bush could use the situation to bolster his case about the threat of a nuclear Iran, given its ties to Hezbollah. "Iran acts pretty reckless when they don't have a nuclear shield. How would they act if they did have a nuclear shield?" he said.
At home, political strategists said, Bush faces the perception that he is presiding over one brushfire after another, hindered in his efforts to advance a positive agenda at a time when Republican control of Congress appears at risk. His most prominent domestic priority of the year, a comprehensive immigration plan, already seemed stalled until after the elections. The escalation of killing in Iraq may have unraveled any chance of major U.S. troop withdrawals before the elections. And the conversation is now dominated by rockets flying in and out of southern Lebanon.
"It significantly contributes to the general sense that they don't have a formula for governing and for leading," said Steve Ricchetti, who was deputy White House chief of staff under Clinton. "There's nothing more important to a president than the public sensing that he has a vision and the ability to lead. And I think that has diminished dramatically for them and it presents an enormous political problem."
Republican candidates who are already nervous about a commander in chief with approval ratings stuck in the 30s have grown wary of the impact of the latest fighting.
"It may not only intrude in the midterm elections, it could envelop them," said V. Lance Tarrance Jr., a prominent Republican consultant. On the one hand, he said, it could give Bush a chance "to demonstrate presidential leadership," and voters are often reluctant to shift leadership in a moment of crisis. On the other hand, he said, "it could force a large-scale regional conflict that increases" the vote against incumbents "to such an extent that people worry about the country."
The White House sees the risk but is banking, in part, on the Democrats' history of not capitalizing on such moments. Bush advisers point to 2004, when the situation in Iraq appeared particularly dire, and yet the president won reelection and Republicans retained both houses of Congress.
Moreover, they note, Bush has three months to paint the Middle East conflict in terms of his vision of the fight against terrorism.
"It may take a while to settle out," said the senior Bush official. "Whether it happens before the election or not, I don't know."