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The Oval Office Bunker

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By David Ignatius
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The disconnect that is destroying what's left of the Bush presidency was clear in an image from the Oval Office this week. President Bush was sitting warily in his chair, pursing his lips as if he had just eaten a bad radish, as a reporter asked about the performance of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in recent congressional testimony concerning the firing of U.S. attorneys.

Prominent Republicans had criticized Gonzales's testimony as evasive and inadequate. But Bush responded blandly that his attorney general had given "a very candid assessment and answered every question he could possibly answer . . . in a way that increased my confidence in his ability to do the job."

Now, say what you like about Gonzales, but only a visitor from another planet would describe as "very candid" the responses of a man who, by one count, repeated 64 times during his testimony the phrase "I don't know" and similar variants. It was as if Bush didn't know or care that everyone in Washington had watched Gonzales duck questions before a Senate committee a few days earlier.

As Bush gave his manifestly inaccurate defense of Gonzales, Gen. David Petraeus sat silently next to him, his newly minted fourth star on his shoulder and his hands folded in his lap. He is the intelligent, ambitious officer the White House has selected as the front man for its endgame strategy in Iraq. One can only wonder what Petraeus was thinking as he watched the president circle the wagons ever tighter around his embattled White House.

Something's got to give. That's the sense around Washington this week as the news from Baghdad worsens and the president defiantly continues an Iraq policy that many military leaders question. Unfortunately, what's giving way right now is the national interest. Bush is hunkered down with his troop surge strategy, and the military is expected to pay the price. A grim example of that human cost was Monday's deaths of nine U.S. soldiers from car bombs that hit one of the vulnerable forward operating bases that are a key part of the surge strategy.

Retired Marine Gen. John Sheehan summed up the military's skepticism in explaining why he turned down White House feelers to become "war czar" for Iraq and Afghanistan: "The very fundamental issue is, they don't know where the hell they're going."

If you want to hear despair in Washington these days, talk to Republicans. The Democrats are exulting in their newfound political power and are eager to profit from Bush's difficulties. But Republicans voice the bitterness and frustration of people chained to the hull of a sinking ship.

I spoke with a half-dozen prominent GOP operatives this past week, most of them high-level officials in the Reagan and Bush I and Bush II administrations, and I heard the same devastating critique: This White House is isolated and ineffective; the country has stopped listening to President Bush, just as it once tuned out the hapless Jimmy Carter; the president's misplaced sense of personal loyalty is hurting his party and the nation.

"This is the most incompetent White House I've seen since I came to Washington," said one GOP senator. "The White House legislative liaison team is incompetent, pitiful, embarrassing. My colleagues can't even tell you who the White House Senate liaison is. There is rank incompetence throughout the government. It's the weakest Cabinet I've seen." And remember, this is a Republican talking.

A prominent conservative complains: "With this White House, there is loyalty not to an idea, but to a person. When Republicans talked about someone in the Reagan administration being 'loyal,' they didn't mean to Ronald Reagan but to the conservative movement." Bush's stubborn defense of Gonzales offends these Republicans, who see the president defiantly clinging to an official who has lost public confidence, just as he did for too long with former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

When a presidency is as severely damaged as this one, the normal drill is to empower a strong and politically adept White House chief of staff to make the necessary changes. That's what the Reagan administration did, bringing in former senator Howard Baker and then political operative Ken Duberstein to repair the damage of the Iran-contra scandal. That's what Bill Clinton did in appointing John Podesta to manage the White House after the Monica Lewinsky debacle.

The current White House chief of staff, Josh Bolten, needs to mount a similar salvage mission, argue several prominent Republicans. They question whether he's politically adept enough. But most of all, they question whether Bolten or anyone else can break through Bush's tight, tough shell and tell him the truth. What's starting to crack isn't the obdurate Bush, but the country.

The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues athttp://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/postglobal. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


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