Mary Dejevsky: One fine speech cannot save a presidency

If American voters had known last year what they know now, would Mr Bush have been re-elected?
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The Independent Online

President George Bush, like any at least half-competent politician, is at his oratorical best when his back is up against a wall. And it certainly was when he addressed the massed ranks of the US military earlier this week at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Only days before, the staunch Republican senator from neighbouring South Carolina, Lindsey Graham, had remarked that even in his state, "the most patriotic state I can imagine", serious doubts were setting in about the Iraq war. At Fort Bragg, Mr Bush had a great deal of convincing to do.

He did a passable job. His style of speaking has improved out of all recognition from the early days of his first term. He looks and sounds like an American commander-in-chief. But the substance of what Mr Bush had to say was always, and unusually, defensive. And the climax – a rant against the folly, as he saw it, of setting a timetable for the withdrawal of US forces – said more about what is worrying Americans than about White House policy. Mr Bush had no choice but to address the timetable issue, because the growing clamour for withdrawal threatens the effectiveness of his whole second term.

Compared with many other countries, including our own, the maximum eight years in office for an American president is not very long. So why is it that, having won a prized second term, so many recent presidents have been compelled to spend their time clearing up one or other mess they made in their first?

Richard Nixon, as the recent revelation of Deep Throat's identity reminded us, resigned after being threatened with impeachment over Watergate. Ronald Reagan's Cold War crusade was compromised by the second-term investigations into the Iran-Contra affair. Bill Clinton ran the gauntlet of the impeachment process because of Monica. And now here is George Bush, less than six months into his second term, not just bogged down in Iraq, but facing a whole set of new questions about what is fast becoming the country's most costly foreign policy mistake since Vietnam.

In theory, a US president's second term is legacy time. Without the constraints of another election campaign, he is supposedly free to look to posterity rather than short-term opportunity. And Mr Bush is freer in this regard than most: his Vice-President, Dick Cheney, has made clear that he will not run for the highest office. Thus, Mr Bush, unlike Bill Clinton, need feel no obligation to smooth the way for his successor.

Yet Mr Bush is reaping none of the supposed benefits of this freedom. The big ideas he presented at the start of his second term have gone nowhere. Social security reform – a bid to change the principles on which the US federal pension system is based – is stuck in the earliest of stages in Congress. Opposition comes not just from the Democrats, but from Mr Bush's own Republican Party – including from a good number of those Representatives and Senators fearful of their prospects in the mid-term elections next year.

Mr Bush may be right or wrong in his judgement that the pensions system risks insolvency. But if he cannot "sell" his plan, even with all the levers of the state and all the lobbyists' money that are available to him as President, he starts to look like a very lame duck. Nor has he helped himself by placing his other great reform programme – a much-needed simplification of the tax system – second in the queue to pensions. With tax reform, he might have been able to circumvent Republican objections by appealing to a part of the Democratic constituency and building a majority that way. Now, both legislative programmes are blocked.

Mr Bush's admired tactical skills seem to have deserted him, too, in the case of his nominee for the US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. There is a stalemate between Mr Bush and the Senate over the nomination of this uncompromising right-winger, who delights in his reputation for tough language and stubbornness. If Mr Bush were to bypass Congress to appoint Mr Bolton during the Independence Day recess, it would diminish US authority at the UN and further damage relations between the White House and Congress. Mr Bush would have a political price to pay for his audacity.

There is talk in Washington of John Bolton as a symbol of a battle in progress for US foreign policy, between the neoconservative thinking that dominated Mr Bush's first term and the more pragmatic approach observed by the National Security Council and Condoleezza Rice as the new Secretary of State. Yet there would be no battle over Mr Bolton, or over the legislative programme, if Congress did not sense George Bush's vulnerability. Republicans increased their majority in both houses in the last election, yet they are already defecting from a president who they increasingly blame for the "quagmire" of Iraq.

As President and commander-in-chief, Mr Bush has little choice but to put a brave face on his predicament: either that, or jeopardise what remains of the national will to wage the war. Military morale, as even the hawkish Senator Graham noted, is not what it should be and recruitment has fallen precipitately. Mr Bush can acknowledge minor errors, in preparing or conducting the war, but he cannot admit that the real mistake might have been to embark on the regime-changing project in the first place. That way would lie ignominy and possible impeachment.

And here is a tantalising question: if American voters had known this time last year, on the eve of the party conventions, what they now know – that George Bush had sought a pretext for invading Iraq as early as 2002; that the intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was "dead wrong", that there would be more than 1,700 dead Americans and no end to the losses in sight – would Mr Bush have been re-elected President?

With the mayhem in Iraq heading prime-time news broadcasts many nights of the week and no "timetable" in prospect for a US withdrawal, the 43rd US president is in trouble. He may escape impeachment – for knowingly misleading the American public and Congress – but he may suffer the next worst fate of a president: leaving no positive legislative or other achievement that would mark his place in America's history.

Indeed, history is already imposing its own sense of proportion. Check "Clinton and Monica" in the internet databases now, and a good proportion of the entries are catalogues of jokes about this sordid and trivial episode. Entries for "Bush and Iraq" in years to come will suggest an infinitely sadder and more sombre bequest.