The blunders and alleged misdeeds committed by senior officials in the Bush administration are taking a terrible toll on this presidency and this capital. But if you could magically wipe away the problems named Katrina, Harriet Miers, Scooter Libby, etc., this White House would still be in serious trouble with American and global opinion.
The problem is more structural than President Bush or Vice President Cheney acknowledges. Until they do, they swim upstream against a quickening current of suspicion and doubt.
The structural dilemma they face cannot be resolved by campaigns of political marketing at home or public diplomacy abroad: The core decision makers of the Bush team still see the world under the cloud of Sept. 11, while more and more citizens do not. Bush and Cheney strive to manage a Sept. 11 presidency that others now see as the Iraq presidency.
The White House maneuvers desperately to keep the multiple wars waged by al Qaeda and its extremist allies confined to foreign lands so they won't be able to strike the U.S. homeland again. The invasion of Iraq sprang from that impulse but has taken on a life of its own that blurs and transforms Bush's original intent.
The continuing virulence of terrorism was underlined by the bombings of three hotels in Amman, Jordan, last week. The blasts, in which four terrorists killed themselves and 57 victims, more than half of them Jordanians, were directed against "the enemies of Islam, such as the Jews and crusaders," according to a communique issued in the name of the al Qaeda in Iraq group.
But as time passes without new horror being unleashed in the United States, the initial Sept. 11 reactions of fear and rage become attenuated, and the public becomes less inclined to support the harsh, often borderline methods the administration insists are necessary to fight a war against global terrorism.
In that atmosphere, the administration weakens its own credibility at home and American moral authority abroad by stubbornly refusing to engage in an honest discussion about drawing a line between torture and other interrogation techniques.
Cheney's quixotic campaign to exempt the CIA from Sen. John McCain's legislation to ban "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners" is a perfect example of the dissonance I describe. Forget about convincing the public: The agency has let it be known that it does not want such an exemption. Some conservative White House and State Department officials I have pressed on the issue in private conversations say they cannot defend or support Cheney's position.
Being seen to argue for an exemption from a law on torture can only add to the damage inflicted on American moral authority abroad by the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, reports of secret CIA-run prisons in Eastern Europe, equivocation on the Geneva Conventions, indiscriminate use of force by U.S. troops abroad or open-ended detention without effective judicial review for most al Qaeda suspects at Guantanamo Bay.
The argument between the majority on the Supreme Court and the administration over judicial review for Guantanamo prisoners has now worked its way into Congress, where some legislators wonder about the continuing intelligence value of prisoners who have been held for nearly four years.
The Pentagon has, by and large, met the challenge of demonstrating that prisoners in Guantanamo are treated humanely. But it has not shown equal concern about the appearance of judicial fairness for the detainees.
Even firm friends of the United States abroad now seek reassurance about this administration's intentions and policies. Anti-Americanism is becoming the main rival to American power as the organizing principle of world politics, one British participant told a European-American conference held here last weekend. Prime Minister Tony Blair is said to deliver a similar message in private video confer- ences with Bush.
The administration may tell itself and the world that its policies are misunderstood or distorted by Bush-haters, and hope that a Karl Rove or Karen Hughes message campaign can clear this up. But the erosion is too deep, and the dissonance too loud, to be overcome by image-crafting.
Policies and attitudes have to change, too. Lifting the legal fog that intentionally envelops Guantanamo detainees is an urgent need, to reaffirm Americans' commitment to the rule of law as well as to stabilize the country's standing abroad. So is establishing with Congress accountability and some form of transparency for prisoners held abroad for U.S. purposes.
The blasts in Jordan show that the murderous forces behind Sept. 11 are still on the march. Americans and the rest of the world will be able to see that more clearly if the administration ensures that unneeded controversies do not cloud their vision.