Although he dislikes foreign travel and formal summits, U.S. President George W. Bush must be relieved to be spending this week as an honored guest in several Asian capitals. According to the stereotype, Asians are unfailingly polite.
The same can no longer be said even of the president’s fellow Republicans in Washington not to mention the mainstream media and Democrats who, sensing a failed presidency, are on the attack as never before.
While nominally still loyal to the White House, Republican lawmakers are now distancing themselves from Bush, and especially from some of his more controversial policies like Iraq and the abuse of detainees in the "war on terror," with surprising alacrity.
In the wake of the party’s poor performance in last week’s off-year elections, as well as the continuing slide to unprecedented lows of Bush’s public approval and credibility ratings, Republican senators have begun to seize control of policies that the White House has long insisted should be in its exclusive domain.
They have also begun to prepare the ground for the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Iraq over the next year.
The Senate voted 79-19 Tuesday to attach the so-called "Warner Amendment," named for Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, to the $440 billion 2006 defense bill. It requires the White House to define the conditions for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and to submit regular reports on progress toward meeting that goal.
At the same time, it approved bipartisan legislation sponsored by another Republican member of the Armed Forces Committee, Sen. Lindsey Graham, that would give detainees the ability to contest their status as suspected terrorists to a federal appeals court, which would also be empowered to hear appeals from any sentences imposed against them by military tribunals.
The administration had previously opposed any role for the federal courts in determining the detainees’ fate.
And the Senate was also poised to approve for the third time since September the so-called "McCain Amendment" that would bar the use of torture or inhumane treatment against detainees by all U.S. agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
While all three moves defied long-held White House positions, the support by most Republicans for the Warner Amendment was in many ways more shocking than the two detainee-related amendments, if only because some Republicans have not been shy about expressing their disagreement with the administration’s decision not to apply the Geneva Convention to prisoners taken in the "war on terror."
During the debate, Warner made clear how passage of his amendment should be interpreted: despite the administration’s vows to "stay the course" in Iraq, Republicans were running out of patience and determined to bring the troops home sooner rather than later.
"We have stood with you; we have done our part," he said. "We really mean business, Iraqis. Get on with it."
While Warner insisted that his amendment was not intended in any way to embarrass the administration, numerous observers pointed out that its wording was based on a nearly identical Democratic proposal. The latter’s only difference was that it would have required the White House to provide more specific information in its reports, including "estimated dates for the phased redeployment" of U.S. troops out of Iraq.
Even Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a strong backer of the Iraq war who has consistently opposed setting any deadline for U.S. withdrawal, said the Warner Amendment’s passage marked a possible "turning point" in the Iraq war and the end of Congress’ acquiescence in its management by the Bush administration.
"It’s the most critical amendment of the conduct of the Iraq war since Congress voted to authorize the use of force against Saddam Hussein," said Jim Cason of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a peace lobby. "It’s a clear recognition that a majority of Senate Republicans have lost faith in the administration’s conduct of the war."
Tuesday’s Senate action was only the latest in a series of events that demonstrated the president’s fast-waning authority over his own party, including last week’s collapse of the 2006 budget bill and Bush’s failure to get his fellow Republicans to approve oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
In an added embarrassment, some losers in last week’s elections blamed their defeat on the president’s growing unpopularity.
While presidents have routinely lost popularity and clout in their second term, Bush’s sub-40 percent approval rating only one year after his reelection is virtually unprecedented in modern times (post-Watergate Richard Nixon, who was impeached 10 months later, being the one exception), according to Charlie Cook, one of Washington’s top poll analysts.
"[I]n a second term, and when a president’s numbers fall below a certain point, the feeling is that every man is for himself, that while the president’s name will never again be on a ballot theirs will be," he wrote in Tuesday’s National Journal Congress Daily.
Indeed, with mid-term Congressional elections now less than one year away, Iraq has emerged as one of the most important issues, according to Cook. Absent a stronger White House able to impose discipline, that issue, and others such as immigration and tax cuts, could tear the party apart.
According to a poll conducted over the weekend by USA Today/CNN/Gallup, fewer than one in 10 likely voters prefer a congressional candidate who is a Republican and who agrees with Bush on most major issues, a finding that is certain to persuade more Republicans to distance themselves from the president.
Adding to his problems are the growing unity and aggressiveness of congressional Democrats who, spurred by Bush’s declining approval and credibility ratings, are pressing much more effectively for investigations of his alleged misuse of prewar intelligence on Iraq, and for a withdrawal plan.
Their cause gained added momentum in the wake of the indictment for perjury of Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff in connection with the "outing" of a covert CIA officer.
In the last 10 days, both members of the 2004 Democratic ticket, Sen. John Kerry and his running mate, former senator John Edwards, publicly charged the administration with manipulating the prewar intelligence and declared that they would not have voted to give Bush the authority to take military action against Iraq, as they did in October 2002, if they had known what they now know.
In several high-profile speeches over the past week, apparently designed to retake the political offensive, Bush and his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, have insisted that Democrats had access to the same intelligence as the administration and reached the same conclusions about the threat allegedly posed by Iraq. But these counterattacks have so far drawn scorn from both their targets and independent political analysts.
"Bush is shooting blanks," one congressional aide told IPS.
As noted by Nelson Report, a popular insider Washington newsletter, questions about Iraq and whether the country was manipulated into war "add up to a steady drumbeat of doubts, second guessing, fair criticism, commentary on bad planning, and just plain bad luck, combined with continued, televised horror and tragedy in Iraq and the region such that it’s hard to see where the ‘good news’ is going to come from consistently enough to ‘change’ public opinion on the president anytime soon, if ever."
(Inter Press Service)