Bush's woes pile up as election beckons

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The Independent US

What goes up, sooner or later, comes down, and the downfall of the ruling centre-right party in Spain is further proof that George Bush is no exception to this immutable law of politics and of life.

What goes up, sooner or later, comes down, and the downfall of the ruling centre-right party in Spain is further proof that George Bush is no exception to this immutable law of politics and of life.

Last year, almost everything went right for Mr Bush;not any longer. The failure to find Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the grim state of the jobs market in the United States and the unexpected aggressive performance of Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, have combined to push the President's approval rating down to 50 per cent. On top of this comes the stunning defeat for José Maria Aznar in Spain.

The repudiation by a major ally of Mr Bush's war in Iraq has come at the worst possible moment for him: just as the White House attempts to use the first anniversary of the invasion to justify its policies.

Spain, under its outgoing prime minister, was the third high-profile member of the so-called "coalition of the willing", after the Britain and the US. Mr Aznar took part in the tripartite eve-of-war Azores summit with Mr Bush and Tony Blair, while Spain was co-sponsor alongside the US and Britain of the failed Security Council resolution last March that would have put a United Nations imprimatur on the war.

Then, three days after the Madrid terrorist bombings for which Muslim groups increasingly appear responsible, Spain switched sides. The victory of the anti-war Socialist party in effect re-aligns Madrid with France and Germany, and leaves Italy and Poland, along with Britain, as the main European supporters of the war in Iraq.

Washington, meanwhile, must confront the grim fact that, for the first time, al-Qa'ida ­ if it was behind the attacks ­ has influenced, if not changed, the result of a democratic election in a major Western country.

Mr Bush called José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the incoming Prime Minister, yesterday to congratulate him, but there was no disguising the disappointment at the White House, for all its attempts to minimise the impact of what had happened. Two hours before the polls closed in Madrid, Condoleezza Rice, Mr Bush's national security adviser, was on network television proclaiming her belief that "the Spanish people understand that they've had strong and good leadership in José Maria Aznar and his government".

Not only was that view quickly and harshly contradicted by the election result; so too was the Bush administration's assumption that a major terrorist attack in Europe would draw sceptical populations closer to Washington. In Spain, the opposite appears to have happened.

Spanish voters seem to have decided that being close to the US is a risky proposition. Some US officials said Mr Aznar's party may have paid the price for playing politics with the attacks by instantly and categorically blaming them on the more convenient target of the Basque organisation Eta, before the facts were known.

If his government had acknowledged from the outset that Islamic terrorism could also have been involved, the outcome might have been different, they said. But even that explanation may backfire against the White House, which for months has been facing accusations it manipulated pre-war data on Iraq's alleged WMD to justify a war which it was determined to wage whatever happened.

A report by the Senate Intelligence Committee on the intelligence failures, which is undergoing final editing, reportedly delivers a devastating verdict on the CIA's performance. Carl Levin, a Democratic member of the committee, said: "It's shocking. There has to be accountability."

The Spanish election outcome is a setback in domestic political terms too, as Mr Bush gears up for a re-election campaign that looks much trickier than it did a month ago. Most ominous of all, perhaps, is that the closely watched, "Is the country on the right track?" political barometer has shifted sharply against Mr Bush, with Americans saying ­ by a 60 per cent to 39 per cent margin in a new Gallup poll yesterday ­ that the US is headed in the wrong direction.

This finding came as the Bush administration was wheeling out every weapon of its own to present the Iraq war, on its first anniversary, as a success. The public relations blitz ranged from co-ordinated media appearances by Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, and other top officials to the presentation of evidence of the threat posed by Libya's erstwhile nuclear programme. It was abandoned, Washington contends, because Colonel Muammar Gaddafi concluded that, if he continued trying to develop a bomb, he would meet the same fate as Saddam Hussein.

This carefully marshalled case for the war is overshadowed by the events in Spain. Moreover, the White House PR offensive will be countered by demonstrations, culminating with what anti-war protest groups claim will be 200 events across the country on Saturday, the exact anniversary of the bombing raids on Baghdad that signalled the start of the war.

In a foretaste, peace activists and relatives of the 564 US troops who have died in Iraq held a vigil outside the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in northern Washington, before staging a silent protest in Lafayette Square, opposite the White House.

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