Published on Saturday, October 18, 2003 by the Guardian/UK
Bush Rocked by Senate Rebellion on Iraq
Republicans Urge President to Get a Grip as Funding Revolt Further Undermines His Authority
by Julian Borger in Washington
A Republican rebellion in the Senate against White House plans for rebuilding Iraq raised questions yesterday about President George Bush's authority in Washington as he struggles to maintain control of a divided administration.
A late-night Senate vote to turn half the $20bn (£12bn) Iraq reconstruction budget into a loan marked a serious setback for the administration, which had wanted all the money in the form of a grant. It also came as a personal defeat for the president.
On Tuesday, Mr Bush had called in nine Republican rebels and ordered them to support his version of the bill, reportedly slamming a table at one point and refusing to answer their questions.
The outburst did him little good. Eight Republican senators voted against the administration on Thursday. One rebel, Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, said: "It was very difficult to stop this train because it made so much sense."
It may prove to be a pivotal moment for the Bush government. Senators of either party defy a popular president at their peril, but this president is no longer all that popular, particularly when it comes to US involvement in Iraq. Fewer than 50% of Americans believe that Mr Bush's leadership can be relied on in a crisis.
The failure to stabilize Iraq and the near-daily death toll among US troops is undoubtedly weighing down the White House as it sets out on its reelection campaign.
An attempt to assert direct control on the management of the occupation earlier this month with the creation of a centralized"Iraq stabilization group" under the president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, served only to drive tensions in the administration to the surface.
Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, who had until then jealously guarded his exclusive control of the situation, openly revolted against the restructuring. He told journalists he had not been consulted and assured them that it was irrelevant.
According to a report by the Knight Ridder news agency, quoting a senior official, a frustrated president wondered aloud whether the internecine fighting had reached historic levels. "This isn't as bad as [George] Shultz versus [Caspar] Weinberger, is it?" Mr Bush asked, referring to a legendary duel within the Reagan administration. One senior official reportedly nodded and said: "Way worse."
One alarmed senate Republican, Richard Lugar, called for Mr Bush to get a grip.
"The president has to be the president," he said. "That means the president over the vice-president, and over the secretaries of state and defense And Dr Rice cannot carry that burden alone."
As a darkening cloud gathers over the White House, it also has to contend with a slow-burning scandal.
FBI investigators are questioning White House staff to find who leaked the name of an undercover CIA officer in July, apparently to discredit the agent's husband, a critic of the administration.
The incident has infuriated conservative Republicans, who believe that the president should have demanded the identities of the leakers and dismissed them. The critics from his party were all the more outraged when the president suggested that the culprits might never be found.
William Kristol, the editor of the neo-conservative magazine the Weekly Standard, said the leak scandal and the president's response illustrated "the disarray within his administration", observing that "the civil war in the Bush administration has become crippling".
Mr Kristol wrote: "The CIA is in open revolt against the White House. The state department and the defense department aren't working together at all. We are way beyond 'fruitful tension' and all the other normal excuses for bureaucratic conflict. This is a situation that only the president can fix."
The White House has responded with a campaign of speeches by the president and his senior aides intended to reaffirm US resolve and to insist that things in Iraq are not as bad as they seem. Instead, the president has argued, the press is to blame, for '"filtering" out good news.
The finger-pointing over an increasingly unpopular military involvement, and the finger-waving at the media reminded Robert Dallek, a presidential historian, of another president and another debilitating war: Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam. "I think there is an emerging quality to the tensions Bush faces and his reactions to the criticism that is reminiscent of Johnson in Vietnam," said Professor Dallek.
"If the enterprise in Iraq keeps faltering this is George W Bush's war, just as Vietnam became Johnson's war."
There is worse to come for Mr Bush in the next few weeks. The leak investigation is expected to gather steam and will either produce a culprit close to the Oval Office or provoke claims of a whitewash.
Then, on November 7, humiliation looms. His most ferocious critic in the Senate - Edward Kennedy, who recently called the Iraq war a fraud "made up in Texas" - will receive an award for "excellence in public service". It will be presented in Texas by the man who selected Senator Kennedy for the honor: George Bush, the president's father.
Sea of troubles in a stormy month
October 1 The justice department announces it has launched an inquiry into the White House leak identifying a CIA undercover agent
October 2 The Iraq survey group, under weapons expert David Kay admits that six months after Baghdad's fall no weapons of mass destruction have been found
October 4 The foundation run by the president's father announces it will bestow the George Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service to Senator Edward Kennedy, arguably the president's sternest critic, who denounced the Iraq war as "a fraud"
October 6 The White House confirms that management of the Iraq occupation will be centralized in a new coordinating group run by the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice
October 7 The defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, says he was not told about the restructuring and insists there have been no real changes
October 15 Senate votes against president and insists that half Iraq's $20bn reconstruction budget should be in the form of loans
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003