Bush and the Perception of Weakness

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
By George Friedman

There is good news for the Republican Party: Things can't get much
worse. About five weeks from the midterm elections, a National
Intelligence Estimate (NIE) asserting that the situation in Iraq
will deteriorate in 2007 is leaked. On top of that, Bob Woodward's
book is released to massive fanfare, chronicling major
disagreements within the White House over prosecution of the Iraq
war and warnings to U.S. President George W. Bush in the summer of
2003 that a dangerous insurgency was under way and that the
president's strategy of removing Baathists from the government and
abolishing the Iraqi army was a mistake. These events are bad
enough, but when U.S. Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) -- the head of a
congressional committee charged with shutting down child molesters
using the Internet -- is caught sending e-mails to 16-year-old male
pages, the news doesn't get much worse.

All of this is tied up with the elections of course. The NIE
document leak was undoubtedly meant to embarrass the president. The
problem is that it did, as it revealed the rift between the
intelligence community and the White House's view of the world. The
Woodward book was clearly intended to be published more than a
month before the elections, and it was expected to have
embarrassing revelations in it. The problem is that not a whole lot
of people quoted in the book are denying that they said or did what
was described. When former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card
is quoted as trying to get U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
out of office and the assertion is made that first lady Laura Bush
tried as well, and denials are not flying, you know two things:
Woodward intended to embarrass Bush just before the election, and
he succeeded. For all we know, the leak about Foley asking about a
16-year-old's boxer shorts may have been timed as well. The problem
is that the allegations were true, and Foley admitted what he did
and resigned.

These problems might be politically timed, but none of them appears
to be based on a lie. The fact is that this confluence of events
has created the perception that the Bush White House is
disintegrating. Bush long ago lost control of leakers in the
intelligence community; he has now started to lose control over
former longtime staffers who, having resigned, have turned on him
via the Woodward book. Bush appears to be locked into a small
circle of advisers (particularly Vice President Dick Cheney and
Rumsfeld) and locked into his Iraq strategy, and he generally
appears to have suspended decision-making in favor of continuing
with decisions already made.

One theory is that Bush doesn't care. He believes in the things he
is doing and, whatever happens in the 2006 elections, he will
continue to be president for the next two years, with the power of
the presidency in his hand. That may be the case, although a
hostile Congress with control over the purse strings can force
policies on presidents (consider Congress suspending military aid
to South Vietnam under Gerald Ford). Congress has substantial power
when it chooses to exercise it.

But leaving the question of internal politics aside, the perception
that Bush's administration is imploding can have a significant
impact on his ability to execute his foreign policy because of how
foreign nations will behave. The perception of disarray generates a
perception of weakness. The perception of weakness encourages
foreign states to take advantage of the situation. Bush has argued
that changing his Iraq policy might send the Islamic world a signal
of weakness. That might be true, but the perception that Bush is
losing control of his administration or of Congress can also signal
weakness. If Bush's intent is the reasonable goal of not appearing
weak, he obviously must examine the current situation's effects on
his ability to reach that goal.

Normally a crisis of this magnitude involving a U.S. ally like
Georgia would rise to the top of the pile of national security
issues at the White House, with suitable threats made and action
plans drawn up. Furthermore, the Russians would normally have been
quite careful about handling such a crisis. There was little
evidence of Russian caution; the Russians refrained from turning
the situation into a military conflict, but they certainly turned
up the heat on Georgia as the crisis evolved on its own. The
Kremlin press service said Bush and Russian President Vladimir
Putin talked about Georgia in a telephone conversation Oct. 2, and
that Putin told Bush third parties should be careful about
encouraging Georgia.

The Russians frankly do not see the United States as capable of
taking meaningful action at this point. That means Moscow can take
risks, exert pressure and shift dynamics in ways it might have
avoided a year ago out of fear of U.S. reprisals. The Russians know
Bush does not have the political base at home, or even the
administrative ability, to manage a crisis. Both National Security
Adviser Stephen Hadley and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are
obsessed with Iraq and the Washington firestorm. As for Rumsfeld,
Woodward quoted the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. John
Abizaid, as saying Rumsfeld lacks credibility. That statement has
not been denied. It is bad when a four-star general says that about
a secretary of defense. Since the perception of U.S. crisis
management is that no one is minding the shop, the Russians tested
their strength.

There is, of course, a much more serious matter: Iran. Iran cut its
teeth on American domestic politics. After the Iranians seized U.S.
Embassy personnel as hostages, they locked the Carter
administration into an impossible position, in which its only
option was a catastrophic rescue attempt. The Iranians had an
enormous impact on the 1980 election, helping to defeat Carter and
not releasing the hostages until Ronald Reagan was sworn in as
president. They crippled a president once and might like to try it

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was involved in the
hostage-taking and got a close-up view of how to manipulate the
United States. Iran already undermined Bush's plans for a stable
government in Iraq when it mobilized Shiite forces against the
Baghdad government over the summer. Between that and the
Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, Iran saw itself in a strong position .
Iran then conducted a diplomatic offensive, as a former Iranian
president and the current Iranian president both traveled to the
United States and tried to make the case that they are more
moderate than the Bush administration painted them.

With five weeks until the U.S. congressional midterm elections, the
Iranians would love to be able to claim that Bush, having rejected
their overtures, was brought down -- or at least crippled -- by
Iran. There are rumors swirling about pending major attacks in Iraq
by pro-Iranian forces. There are always rumors swirling in Iraq
about attacks, but in this particular case, logic would give them
credibility. The Iranians might be calculating that if
Iranian-sponsored groups could inflict massive casualties on U.S.
troops, it would affect the U.S. election enough to get a
Democratic Congress in place -- which could cripple Bush's ability
to wage war and further weaken the United States' position in the
Middle East. This, of course, would increase Iran's standing in the

The Iranian perception is that the United States does not have the
resources to launch either an invasion or massive airstrikes
against Iran. The Bush administration's credibility on weapons of
mass destruction (WMD) is too low for that to be regarded as a
plausible excuse, and even if strikes were launched to take out
WMD, that rationale would not justify an extended, multi-month
bombing campaign. Since the Iranians believe the United States
lacks the will and ability to try regime change from the air,
Tehran is in a position to strike without putting itself at risk.

Iran and others are feeling encouraged to take risks before the
upcoming U.S. election -- either because they see this as a period
of maximum American weakness or because they hope to influence the
election and further weaken Bush. If they succeed, many U.S. allies
will, like the Saudis, have to recalculate their positions relative
to the United States and move away. The willingness of people in
Iraq and Afghanistan to align with the United States will decline.
If the United States is seen as a loser, it will become a loser.
Furthermore, the NIE and the Woodward book create the perception
that Bush has become isolated in his views and unable to control
his own people. He needs to reverse this perception.

It is easy to write that. It is much harder to imagine how he will
accomplish it, particularly if there is a major attack in Iraq or
elsewhere. Bush's solution has been to refuse to bend. That worked
for a while, but that strategy is no longer credible because it is
not clear that Bush still has the option of not bending. The
disarray in his administration and the real possibility of losing
Congress means that merely remaining resolved is not enough. Bush
needs to bring perceived order to the perceived chaos in the
administration. Between the bad luck of degenerate congressmen and
the intentions of the Iranians, he does not have many tools at his
disposal. The things he might have done a year ago, like replacing
Rumsfeld, are not an option now. It would smell of panic, and he
cannot afford to be seen as panicky. Perhaps Bush's only option at
this point is to remain self-assured and indifferent to the storm
around him.