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Events in Iraq Test President as Leader

Times Staff Writer

The cascade of troubling developments in Iraq has posed an extraordinary test of President Bush’s leadership, forcing him to do several things that do not come easily to him.

Although the hallmarks of his administration have been loyalty, discipline and doggedness, Bush in recent days has openly criticized a top lieutenant, changed course on troop levels and funding in Iraq and been subjected to a new spate of dissent from fellow Republicans in Congress.

Bush’s rebuke of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for his handling of the Iraq prison scandal, delivered in private but deliberately made public by top White House aides, is a rare departure for a president who has labored to keep divisions within his administration behind closed doors.

Bush’s decision this week to seek more money for Iraq, considered overdue by some members of Congress, is seen by lawmakers as an admission that costs are growing more rapidly than had been expected.

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And the controversy over the administration’s handling of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, including the Pentagon’s apparent delay in notifying Congress, has so infuriated lawmakers that more Republicans are second-guessing an administration that is seen as having little appetite for public dissent from its usual allies.

Bush’s leadership style -- both in domestic and foreign policy -- has produced a remarkably disciplined and focused White House for most of his tenure in office.

But now, some critics argue that his administration’s tightly held process of setting and sticking by policy -- described by administration insiders in several recent books -- has contributed to some of the problems it faces after the end of major combat in Iraq. Critics say administration planners gave short shrift to signs that stabilizing Iraq would require more time, money and manpower than they expected.

“It is not a deliberative or particularly rational process, and it’s seldom open to new information,” said Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution. “That was responsible for the lack of planning for what was to follow the war.”

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“There is a general sense out there that the administration does not tolerate any points of view that are contrary to theirs,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who has argued that the U.S. should seek more international support for the Iraq mission. “Good, sharp critical thinking is absolutely imperative to good policy.”

A senior administration official disputed the contention that the White House was rigid and closed to dissenting views or new information, citing the many course corrections the administration has made since the end of major combat in Iraq.

“I think actions speak louder than words. How the administration has pursued Iraq’s reconstruction and the transfer of sovereignty is by having a plan but having a flexible plan that does adapt to changing conditions on the ground,” the official said.

Recent weeks have posed a steady stream of challenges to Bush that have tested his ability to keep his Iraq policy on course.

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The release of photographs of Iraqi prisoners being abused created a firestorm that he and his top lieutenants were ill-prepared to douse.

It came on the heels of weeks of continuing instability and outbursts of anti-Americanism in parts of Iraq. The U.S. military has struggled for a strategy to handle Fallouja, a hotbed of the insurgency. In April, 136 American troops died in Iraq -- the deadliest month yet in the conflict.

Recent polls have suggested that these troubles are affecting the public’s assessment of Bush’s handling of the conflict in Iraq. A new Gallup survey -- conducted as reports of Iraqi prisoner abuse were emerging -- found that 42% of those surveyed approved of the way Bush is handling the situation in Iraq, down from 48% in April and 61% in January.

No one knows for sure how this will affect Bush’s reelection prospects. But the events that seem to be swirling beyond his control undercut one of Bush’s strongest political assets: his persona as a strong leader.

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“It would be better for him if it appeared more that he was ahead of events rather than reacting,” said Charles O. Jones, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin. “His great strength has been a positive image of his capacity to lead ... of seeming to be in charge, not letting others determine what he’s going to do.”

One important aspect of Bush’s leadership style is his tendency to remain detached from the nitty-gritty details of issues. Some analysts say that may have contributed to the fact that Bush, who had been told in January in general terms about an investigation of prisoner abuse, felt blindsided when he recently learned its full extent.

“He is not known for his curiosity, for pressing for new information,” Mann said. “His antennae were not well positioned to pick it up.”

Another important feature of Bush’s leadership has been the priority he puts on loyalty, discipline and presenting a united administration front. That has made his White House unusually free of leaks and unauthorized disclosure of internal divisions.

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That is why it was so unusual that top administration aides made a point of letting reporters know Wednesday night that Bush had told Rumsfeld that he was unhappy with the defense secretary’s handling of the prison scandal. But the scolding only went so far: The next day, Bush reaffirmed his support for Rumsfeld.

“He’s an important part of my Cabinet, and he’ll stay in my Cabinet,” Bush said Thursday.

Another hallmark of Bush’s presidency has been his tendency to consult Congress less often than many of its members, including those in his own party, would like.

“It’s been like pulling teeth getting information out of this Defense Department,” said Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), chairman of the House subcommittee that handles Iraq reconstruction funding.

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Although such complaints are common under all presidents, the Bush White House has been especially determined to expand presidential powers and limit the reach of the legislative branch. Against that backdrop, lawmakers, especially in the Senate, were infuriated that the Pentagon had apparently delayed informing Congress about the prisoner abuse scandal.

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) said the scandal might have been averted if the Pentagon was not so resistant to congressional oversight.

“Many of us have asked to go to places, and one of the places we should have been visiting were the prisons to see how difficult it was for our troops to handle these prisoners,” Shays said.

Hagel argues that Bush will have to be more open to input from congressional dissidents if the president wants to shore up his political support during the potentially rocky months ahead, as Iraq makes its transition to sovereignty.

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“It’s more likely Congress will hang with you” if its members do not feel cut out of discussions, Hagel said. “These problems are going to get wider and deeper.”

The White House denied that there was any effort to keep Congress in the dark.

“The president has made it clear he wants Congress to be kept informed,” said an administration official who asked not to be named. “But I do think that for as long as I’ve lived in this town, Congress is rarely satisfied with its level of notification on any subject.”


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