From Strategic Forecasting, Inc:
Bush and the Perception of Weakness
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.
Now, this may not be a fair perception. We are not in the White House and do not know what is going on there. But this is now the perception, and that fact must be entered into the equation. True or not, and fair or not, the president appears to be denying what the intelligence communities are saying and what some of his closest advisers have argued, and it appears that this has been going on for a long time. With the election weeks away, and the Foley scandal adding to the administration's difficulties, there is a reasonable probability that the Republicans will get hammered in the elections, potentially losing both houses of Congress if the current trend continues.
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.
Consider a matter not involving the Islamic world. This week, a crisis blew up in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which is now closely aligned with the United States. Georgia arrested four Russian military officers, charging them with espionage. The Russians demanded their release and halted the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia -- a withdrawal Moscow had promised before the arrests gave it the opportunity to create a fundamental crisis in Russo-Georgian relations.
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 again.
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 region.
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.
If the Iranians were to strike hard at the United States in Iraq, and the United States did not respond effectively, then the perception in key countries like Saudi Arabia -- a religious and geopolitical rival of Iran's -- would be that aligning with the United States is a dangerous move because the U.S. ability to protect them is not there, and therefore they need to make other arrangements. Since getting the Saudis' cooperation against al Qaeda was a major achievement for the Bush administration, this would be a major reversal. But if Riyadh perceived the United States as inherently weak, Riyadh would have no choice but to recalculate and relaunch its foreign policy. 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.
Whatever the perception in the United States, Bush's enemies overseas are not impressed by his self-assurance, and his allies are getting very worried that, like Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, his political weakness will not allow him to control the U.S. course. We believe that, in the end, reality governs perception. But we are not convinced that, in this case, the perception and the reality are not one and the same; and we are not convinced that, in the coming weeks, the perception is not in fact more important than the reality. And if the Republicans lose the upcoming elections, the perception that Bush lacks the plans and political power needed for decisive action will become the reality. For Bush to be able to execute the foreign policy he wants, his party must win the midterm elections. For that to happen, Bush must get control of the political situation quickly. To do that, he must change the perception that his own administration is out of control. Easy to write. Harder to do.
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