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Bush is Losing Ability to Shape Events

By David Ignatius

As political power ebbs away from the Bush presidency, a number of changes are becoming visible around the world -- most of them unwelcome. Simply put, the White House is losing its ability to shape events.

President Bush's relentless focus on Iraq magnifies this problem. His almost daily comments on the war underscore just how much he has ransomed his presidency and the nation's security to the unlikely prospect of success in Iraq. And the monomania about Iraq distracts Bush and his advisers from other big issues that need attention.

What else is there to worry about? "A key question in assessing the risks to the outlook is whether the global economy would be able to 'decouple' from the United States were the latter to slow down more sharply than projected.'' This is from the latest World Economic Outlook report, prepared by the International Monetary Fund before this weekend's gathering in Washington of global bankers and finance ministers.

Rather than deferring to U.S. economic leadership, in other words, the global financiers are worrying about how to get out of the way if our pyramid of debt-financed consumer spending should topple. The IMF projects U.S. economic growth this year at just 2.2 percent, below the average for advanced economies and less than half the projected growth for the world as a whole.

A telling sign of America's inability to solve chronic problems is the IMF's discussion of our addiction to oil -- something President Bush talks plenty about but lacks the political will or congressional support to change. The IMF has gathered some genuinely shocking statistics: U.S. gasoline consumption as a share of GDP is nearly five times that in the other major industrialized countries; gasoline accounts for 43 percent of U.S. oil consumption versus 15 percent in other countries; fuel efficiency in America is 25 percent lower than in the European Union and 50 percent lower than in Japan. No wonder the world doubts our seriousness on energy issues.

With the White House in decline, interest groups are gaining more clout to influence policy. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is working mightily to keep the U.S.-China relationship on track. But the administration recognized political reality this week in filing complaints with the World Trade Organization about Chinese piracy of intellectual property, drawing an expression of "deep regret and strong dissatisfaction'' from Beijing. The New York Times, citing a China expert, said "Chinese officials appeared to be worried that President Bush was losing his ability to block protectionist moves in Congress.''

Bush is also struggling to maintain a good working relationship with Russia, whose cooperation on the Iran nuclear issue is crucial. But here again, he suffers from his weakened political position at home. The plugged-in foreign policy Web site The Swoop notes that administration officials want to help Russia join the WTO, but cautions: "A difficulty here is that this requires congressional support. This may not be easy to secure given increasingly hostile attitudes to Russia on Capitol Hill.''

Even the breakthrough trade and nuclear energy deal with India, arguably the administration's only big foreign-policy success last year, is hostage to the president's declining political support. Congress still hasn't passed the legislation necessary for the India package to go through. Supporters are hoping that strong backing from key Democrats will save it, despite the White House's declining influence.

The most dangerous consequences of the Washington power vacuum may be in Iraq itself. The president's pleas for bipartisan support, coming late in the game, seem to be falling on deaf ears. He has lost the Democrats -- Sen. Joseph Biden all but declared defeat for the Bush troop surge strategy this week -- and even the Republicans seem willing to give Bush's surge only provisional support, through this fall.

As bad as things are in Iraq, they may soon get worse. The focus on Baghdad security has led many analysts to overlook the growing risk of an explosion in the ethnically divided city of Kirkuk -- and even of a military clash between Iraqi Kurds and Turkey over control of the city. Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani last weekend threatened that if Ankara tries to protect the Turkmen minority in Kirkuk, "then we will take action for the 30 million Kurds in Turkey.'' That reckless statement probably had Turkish generals reviewing their contingency plans for military intervention.

Here's the paradox: Many of Bush's international policies are sensible because they seek to preserve a measure of American influence in a world that doubts our leadership. But with his presidency in disarray, George Bush is increasingly unable to make these policies work.

davidignatius@washpost.com

(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group


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