Bush's Twilight Year Looks Grim

WASHINGTON - If the last days of 2007 are any indication, U.S. President George W. Bush's last year in office is shaping up as grim and lonely.

Grim, because Bush's signature "war on terror" is nowhere near the kind of "victory" on which he had placed so much hope. Hundreds of billions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury have been spent, but the democratic transformation of the Middle East and the wider Islamic world has not materialised.

Indeed, while Bush's Surge strategy has helped reduce violence in Iraq over the past year, his top military commanders stress that the relative peace that has been achieved to date is fragile and that prospects for national reconciliation -- the Surge's political goal -- remain dim.

Meanwhile, victory in the larger terror effort is nowhere in sight, as this week's assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, helped illustrate.

Grim, because the economic news -- which has generally remained upbeat over Bush's tenure -- has turned decidedly negative in recent months. The chances that his successor may inherit a recession, as well as the many foreign-policy fiascos created by the disastrous combination of the administration's ideological rigidity and incompetence, are growing steadily.

Lonely, not only because of the departure during the past year of virtually all of his closest and most long-standing loyalists -- Dan Barlett, Karen Hughes, Harriet Miers, Alberto Gonzales, and Karl Rove -- but also because he is seen increasingly as both a lame duck and an albatross around the necks of his party's candidates.

Indeed, the focus of national and international attention -- so far as the U.S. is concerned -- appears to have shifted to the race to succeed him in next November's elections. Remarkably, the mainstream U.S. media this week devoted as much space to the reactions of the main presidential candidates to Bhutto's assassination as to the administration's.

The fact that all of the major Republican candidates not only rarely evoke his name, but often suggest that his performance in office has been less than stellar, serves only to underline his marginalisation.

As for the Democrats, Bush, whose public-approval ratings have hovered around 32 percent for more than a year (the worst sustained ratings of any president in more than 50 years), is the rhetorical target against whom they find it easiest to rally the party faithful. According to recent surveys, the Democratic party has grown substantially over the past four years, largely as a result of what Bush's defenders have called "Bush hatred".

Bush, of course, is still hoping that 2008 may yet deliver his presidency from the fate of being judged as one of the very worst -- if not the worst -- in history.

A number of eminent historians have in fact already reached that judgement, based, among other things, on the strategic disaster of the Iraq war; the squandering of Washington's overseas image as a champion of international law and human rights; the defiance of constitutional safeguards at home; the politicisation of the system of justice; and the distortion of scientific research regarding global warming and other critical issues.

His hopes of escaping that assessment rest primarily in the area of foreign policy, on which, as a "war-time president", he has staked his reputation.

Possible achievements that could help to redeem Bush's overall record before the end of his term would be the continued reduction of violence -- if not reconciliation among the three main communal groups -- in Iraq; a major breakthrough in the Israel-Palestinian negotiations leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state; or the de-nuclearisation of North Korea.

But even the most likely of these three -- North Korean de-nuclearisation -- remains highly uncertain. Most analysts here believe that Pyongyang has not yet made a strategic decision to give up its nuclear programme as demanded by Washington.

Similarly, the initial indications after last month's Israeli-Palestinian Summit in Annapolis do not look particularly favourable. Israel has spurned a cease- fire offer by Hamas -- which, in any event, retains the ability to spoil any accord reached by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas -- and, despite U.S. pressure, is playing coy about settlement activity in the contested Jerusalem area. Just how hard Bush is prepared to press Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert remains unknown.

As for Iraq, a big question mark is whether the planned withdrawal of 30,000 U.S. troops by July and 60,000 by the end of next year will spark a new round in the Sunni-Shi'a civil war, which the Surge has helped to tamp down but not resolve. Another big question as 2007 draws to a close is whether Kurdistan - - until now the most peaceful and pro-U.S. part of Iraq -- will find its stability at risk due to U.S.-backed Turkish attacks on Kurdish guerrillas or by the approach of the newly-scheduled referendum on the status of Kirkuk.

While these three areas may offer the brightest prospects for redemption, new crises -- particularly those arising from the "war on terror" -- could divert the administration's attention and further damage Bush's record.

Bhutto's assassination, for example, offered yet another example that Bush's war has been at best incompetently pursued, if not misconceived from the very beginning.

Not only did Bush's diversion of both money and troops from Afghanistan to Iraq immediately after the defeat of the Taliban permit both Taliban and al Qaeda to regroup and eventually extend their influence in the rugged tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border, but his virtually unconditional backing -- including more than 10 billion dollars in mostly military aid -- for the regime of General Pervez Musharraf served mainly to strengthen the Islamist parties at the expense of the secular, "moderate" forces to which his administration has given mainly rhetorical support.

When it became clear last summer that Pakistan's Taliban was making major advances and that Musharraf's popular base had dried up, the administration sought to forge an agreement between the military commander and the exiled Bhutto, whom it had long ignored.

The agreement, which included free elections that would likely result in Bhutto's election as prime minister, was designed, in the words of Bruce Reidel -- a former senior CIA analyst now with the Brookings Institution -- to give the Musharraf government "a democratic faAfASSade", bolster the moderates, and encourage the army to co-operate with U.S. counter-terror efforts.

The cynicism of the manoeuvre, combined with Washington's enduring support for Musharraf -- even when he declared a state of emergency earlier this fall -- forced Bhutto to back away, leaving the accord unconsummated. Now that she has been eliminated, a number of experts here have noted, Bush, predictably, lacks a "Plan B".

The prospect of a failed, nuclear-armed Pakistan makes even Iraq -- not to mention a uranium-enrichment programme in Iran -- look benign. It could be a rough final year.

(c) 2007 Inter Press Service

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