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The Multipolar Presidency

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Coherence has never been the strong suit of George W. Bush's rhetoric. His line about how sometimes you have to "catapult the propaganda," my favorite Bushism of all time, may be one of the most off-the-wall presidential utterances ever. But the Decider's policies, however unfortunate, at least used to be pretty much of a piece. Not any more.

Increasingly, the president seems pushed and pulled in contradictory directions, not so much by the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill but by his own Cabinet members and other appointees. The president comes out every once in a while to make a show of steely resolve, as he did last week in support of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. But then he retreats and leaves the decidin' to others.

Take the Gonzales affair, which is beginning to look like an experiment to determine just how much unnecessary damage an administration can inflict upon itself. Because of friendship or stubbornness, Bush has essentially left the attorney general's future up to the attorney general (whose judgment has been, shall we say, called into question). Bush won't fire him, Gonzales won't leave and the acidic drip-drip-drip of new revelations continues to eat away at what's left of the administration's credibility.

I have to believe that at some point, Gonzales will solve this problem by looking deep within his soul and discovering an urgent need to spend more time with his family. But his situation is just the example du jour of disarray in a newly multipolar administration.

The war in Iraq -- the foreign policy misadventure by which history will judge the Bush administration -- is now Gen. David Petraeus's to win or lose. It's the general who drew up the plan for the escalation we're supposed to call a "surge." If he needs an additional few thousand troops over and above what he asked for, here they come.

Oh, and it's the Iraqis who have to piece together a polity out of the jagged shards our fumbling has left behind. Time to step up, Iraqis, and bring all the super glue you can find.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is off running a foreign policy that's more from Venus than Mars. Rice has decided, rather late in the game, that it would be helpful if Israel and the Palestinians made peace. Never mind that we've spent six years helping polarize the situation, to the point where even if Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed on a comprehensive deal, it's unlikely either side could deliver.

Does Bush really want to broker peace? Is Rice the driving force behind this long-shot initiative? Or is it all for show?

Dick Cheney seems to have assigned himself two major public tasks: Bash the Democrats with intemperate attacks, and coddle the Saudis and the rest of our authoritarian allies in the Middle East.

The Democrat-bashing -- bellowing at every opportunity that questioning the administration's conduct of the war amounts to an attack on American troops -- at least makes some sense politically as a way of keeping the die-hard Republican base fired up. But it also undercuts the president's stated position toward Democratic leaders on the Hill, which is that he prefers cooperation over confrontation. Maybe I'm just touchy, but I would find it hard to take seriously the let's-all-pull-together exhortations of a man whose second in command is all but calling me a Benedict Arnold.

Does the president believe in promoting freedom around the globe? He used to -- and it seemed to be such a core belief that it's hard for me to imagine he's changed his mind -- yet "friendly" dictators such as Pervez Musharraf and Hosni Mubarak can crack down on dissent and the United States utters barely a peep.

Does the president believe in global warming? It used to be that he didn't, but now apparently he does -- only his administration doesn't propose doing anything about it. Does the president worry about the deficit? After being perhaps the most profligate spender and tax-cutter in history, he says he does -- but, again, his administration offers no serious plan to bring the fiscal hemorrhaging under control.

If you factor out the Gonzales imbroglio, chalking it up to loyalty, I suppose it's possible that we're just in a period of messy transition. It's possible that we're seeing an administration in the process of positioning itself to try to govern effectively for the next 22 months.

But I doubt it. It's hard to maneuver the behemoth ship of state, but it's impossible when nobody -- or everybody -- is at the wheel.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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