Bush's Make-Do Team

By David Ignatius
Thursday, June 21, 2007

Sailors have a colorful phrase to describe a boat that is so close to the wind that it has stopped dead in the water -- unable to fill its sails and make any headway. They say the boat is "in irons."

The Bush presidency is perilously close to being in irons, at least as seen from neutral ground on shore. The president continues to lose support in Congress and from the public; his latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll rating is a dismal 29 percent. The crew is quarreling about Iran policy, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arguing for diplomatic engagement and Vice President Cheney skeptical that it will work. All the while, President Bush continues to struggle against the riptide of the Iraq war.

So how do Bush and his senior aides hope to keep momentum going for the ship of state in such a difficult period? I put that question to several senior administration officials during the past week, and their answers surprised me -- not because they have a clear plan of action, but because they don't see the Bush presidency in as dire straits as many outsiders do.

"I don't think the president believes we are on the cusp of failure," says one senior official who sees Bush almost every day. This official says that when trying to recruit people to the administration, it's not "how to persuade people to row out to the Titanic and get on as it's starting to list. It doesn't feel that way."

One way to describe the current White House mind-set might be "muddling through." Certainly, that seems a fair description of Iraq policy. "In Bush's view, we are not on the edge of failure or of blindingly visible success," says the senior official. Bush wants to see his troop-surge policy through, but his aides see a successful surge as a transition to a Baker-Hamilton approach that reduces the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

An example of the "cut your losses" attitude that's beginning to take hold was Defense Secretary Robert Gates's announcement this month that he would not recommend extending the term of Gen. Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

When Gates made soundings on Capitol Hill, he encountered strong criticism of Pace as a Donald Rumsfeld holdover. Gates reconsidered and decided it was time to jettison the Marine general. Bush had initially wanted to keep Pace on, but he deferred to his defense secretary.

Gates is an important new element in the administration's chemistry. "Gates is a very cold analyst -- very unemotional in looking at a problem," says the senior administration official. "He has an unusual ability to see reality as it is -- what might work -- rather than let his hopes and aspirations take over."

This is an administration that likes consensus, or at least the appearance of it, and that is being tested by Iran. For now, Bush backs Rice's policy of diplomatic engagement. But Cheney aides are arguing that the diplomatic effort is failing and that the United States must therefore prepare for military action, such as limited strikes against known Iranian nuclear facilities. Rice is convinced that there is no viable military option. On this issue, Gates's advice to the president may prove decisive.

You can argue that the Bush White House remains, in Bob Woodward's phrase, in a "state of denial" about how bad things are. Certainly, the White House hasn't abandoned ship. A good example is immigration, where Bush continues pushing for a compromise bill that would unite liberal Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy and conservative Republican Sen. Jon Kyl. Despite a chorus of premature obituaries for their bipartisan bill, Bush aides still think they can prevail. And if they win on immigration, they plan similar drives on energy and education.

One of Bush's top aides muses on the defining paradox of this presidency: How did a man who promised a change of tone in Washington preside over one of the most partisan and divisive periods in the country's history? Bush doesn't conduct feuds or hold personal grudges, this adviser insists. "The president is polarizing, even though he isn't polar." Here's where I find a disconnect: Bush's aides seem not to understand how Bush and Cheney's statements have poisoned the water.

Perhaps there is a structural problem caused by congressional redistricting, this aide reflects, with most Republicans and Democrats in safe one-party districts where the biggest threat is a challenge from their extreme wings. The aide pauses, and then offers a devastating analogy: "We may be the Israelis and Palestinians here, each trying to avenge the latest outrage." If so, that's not good for the country.

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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