Review of the year: The Bush Administration

Scandal, incompetence - and dark clouds ahead
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The White House, unlike Windsor Castle, was not ravaged by fire last year, nor did it witness any family disaster to match the divorce of Charles and Diana. But just as surely as 1992 was the annus horribilis for Queen Elizabeth II, 2005 gained the same dismal distinction for George W Bush.

For the 43rd American president, it was proof that Murphy's Law operates in politics as in every other walk of life.

There were the unforeseeable "events" of which Harold Macmillan used to warn - in this case Hurricane Katrina, and the faults in the Federal Government, as well as the Bush weakness for cronyism, that it exposed. The President's fatuous encomium to the hopelessly incompetent manager of the Federal Emergency Management Agency - "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job" - will surely go down as the quote of the year.

Then there was the fiasco of the President's attempt to sell the country on his plan to part-privatise social security. Originally intended to be the centrepiece of his second term, it was dead and buried within four months.

There were the scandals too, the indictment and resignation of Lewis Libby, chief aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, in the CIA leak affair (which could yet claim Bush's own closest adviser, Karl Rove), and the misdeeds of the Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff that lap at the White House gates.

Above all there was Iraq, in the past, present and future tenses. 2005 was when the past, in the shape of Saddam Hussein's non-existent WMDs, could no longer be ignored, amid ever mounting evidence that the administration wilfully distorted intelligence as it took the country into a war that has already cost some 2,150 American lives.

Iraq's precarious and violent present meanwhile offered daily reminders that a war launched in the name of pre-empting terror has merely served to spread terrorism. As for the future, it becomes ever more obvious that by invading Iraq, the US may well have made a present of regional supremacy to its old foe Iran. One way and another, in short, almost everything in 2005 that could go wrong, did go wrong.

How different everything was just 11 months ago. Bush was still flush with his narrow but clear-cut election victory over John Kerry that laid to rest the ghosts of Florida 2000. The President boasted of the new political capital he had gained and, he added: "I intend to spend it." On 20 January 2005, as he began his second term, Bush delivered one of the most grandiloquent inaugural addresses of modern times, committing the US to carrying democracy to all four corners of the earth.

By summer however, the political capital had vanished - not so much spent as blown away on the winds of reality. Iraq might have met each of the electoral and constitutional deadlines assigned to it, but the insurgency there only grew. Gradually, but ultimately decisively, America began to turn against a war for which the White House had no credible plan.

As the disasters accumulated, Bush's approval ratings sank, from 60 per cent at the start of 2005 to 40 per cent or less at year's end. The Iraq war was even less popular; two thirds of Americans now believe the 2003 invasion was a mistake. Largely as a result, the President's once unshakeable grip on Congress melted. Increasingly, many Republicans kept their distance, fearful that excessive proximity might drag them to defeat in the 2006 mid-term elections.

Re-elected presidents almost always have a rough time (witness LBJ and Vietnam, Reagan and the Iran-Contra scandal, not to mention Bill Clinton and a certain Monica Lewinsky). Rarely, though, has "second term-itis" struck so quickly and so fiercely. More than three years before he leaves the White House, President Bush is already something of a lame duck. Can the trend be reversed? The omens are not promising. Bush once preached his doctrine of "compassionate conservatism". But he has become a desperately polarising figure, of whom half the country will hear no good under any circumstances. One of his strongest selling points was managerial competence, but Katrina banished that illusion. Even more than previous presidents, he surrounds himself with courtiers and is almost never exposed to dissenting views. Presidents live in bubbles, but few are as sealed off from reality as much as George W Bush. "We make our own reality," once boasted an aide.

Then of course the roof fell in.

Nor has he ever showed much inclination to admit mistakes, even to himself.

Exacerbating his problems is the lack of an heir apparent. For the first time in half a century, a sitting vice president is not vying for the succession. Instead Dick Cheney is even less popular than his boss. The result is an already discernable free-for-all among potential contenders for the crown - making it harder than ever for the White House to impose its will on Republicans in Congress.

Some factors, it is true, are working in Mr Bush's favour. After a mid-year wobble, the economy is performing well - apart from trade and budget deficits whose adverse effect will probably only be felt well after Mr Bush leaves office. Fortunately, the Democrats are also in disarray on Iraq, split between advocates of a swift withdrawal, and those who reluctantly agree with the President that swift withdrawal would only make matters even worse. By year's end, Bush's approval ratings were edging higher, as the White House finally packaged its assertions of progress in Iraq into something that could be passed off as a policy.

And it is Iraq that will determine this President's fate and his place in history. Bush vows to accept "nothing less than victory" before US forces leave Iraq. That goal may be more plausible now that December's parliamentary elections are deemed a success, and the Pentagon can make real reductions in the US military presence.

But the opposite is equally possible: greater sectarian and ethnic tensions and continuing violence, along with greater encroachment by Iran. This would set the stage for an even more bitter showdown with Tehran - a far more dangerous adversary than Iraq - over its nuclear programme. It is possible that 2006 could turn out as horrible, or even more so, than 2005.