By now, the presidency must look like a Rubik’s Cube to George W. Bush. Last year, when Americans thrilled to statues of Saddam Hussein tumbling in Baghdad, the economy was stalled. Now that the economy is finally moving into gear, Americans are growing increasingly restive over events in Iraq.
For Bush, the revelations about abuse at Abu Ghraib prison could not have emerged at a worse time. April’s turmoil in Iraq -- which saw more American soldiers die than in any month since combat began -- had already strained the public’s confidence in the occupation.
Now, after the bloodiest month, comes the most mortifying: a scandal that looms over both the administration’s short-term goal of reversing rising anti-Americanism in Iraq and its long-term hope of encouraging democratization across the Mideast.
The horrors inside the prison have so bruised America’s image across Europe and the Arab world that Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) probably had a good idea at Friday’s Armed Services Committee hearing when he suggested razing the place.
But the controversy over the abuse and the administration’s reaction to it does not only threaten Bush abroad. It also presents him with four distinct political challenges at home. Let’s look at them, ranked from the least to the most dangerous for the president:
Alienating Congress: The Pentagon’s failure to inform Congress about the progress of the investigation into troop misconduct has sharpened long-standing frustrations over the administration’s resistance to sharing information on Capitol Hill, even with Republicans.
Some senior GOP lawmakers, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, openly acknowledge that the administration virtually ignores them. Many Republicans were especially outraged that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld didn’t inform them of the impending abuse revelations when he briefed them on the same day CBS broke the story.
These frustrations may create some headaches for Bush, but are unlikely to become a serious threat. Most congressional Republicans long ago hitched their star to Bush; few are eager to risk damaging him with aggressive oversight. Indeed, judging by the windy, unfocused questioning from legislators in both parties at Friday’s hearing, the Senate is so out of practice that more oversight might damage its own reputation most.
Avoiding accountability: As a candidate, Bush promised to inaugurate a “responsibility era.” But as a chief executive he has been reluctant to hold anyone accountable for failure. He didn’t fire CIA Director George J. Tenet or other intelligence officials after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- or the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He’s dug in his heels on Rumsfeld now.
Typically, the more outsiders demand that Bush dismiss one of his subordinates, the more he resists. But he faces the growing perception that he has only one firing offense: dissent from his administration’s prevailing wisdom.
Bush endured only modest criticism after the departures of in-house skeptics such as Treasury Secretary Paul H. O’Neill and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki. But if the top Pentagon officials all thrive while those below are prosecuted in the abuse case, the White House is likely to face much louder complaints.
Failing to act: The heart of Bush’s case for reelection is that he is a strong, decisive leader in the war against terrorism. But the prison scandal could reinforce earlier questions about his management style.
Rumsfeld made clear Friday he never briefed Bush about the full magnitude of the scandal. But Pentagon officials have indicated that Rumsfeld informed Bush at least in broad terms about the problem soon after the secretary learned of it in mid-January. There’s no indication Bush pressed further; White House officials say the president felt satisfied the Pentagon was investigating.
The president’s reaction was similar when he received the famous intelligence briefing on Osama bin Laden in August 2001: He later said he did not seek to meet afterward with the FBI director because he believed the bureau would contact him if it unearthed information he needed to act upon.
All of this is oddly passive behavior for an executive whose chief selling point is his resolve. Like his direction or not, Bush has excelled at defining a clear course for his administration. But his frustration at the explosion of the prison scandal shows the price of most often choosing not to grapple with the details. He’s painfully learning that presidents who want to watch only the forest sometimes smack head-on into the trees.
Losing Iraq: Looming far above all these risks to Bush is the threat that the scandal will weaken America’s position in Iraq and strengthen fears at home that our effort there is unraveling.
The last month’s grim cascade of casualties softened public support for the war, but did not shatter it because most Americans still believe a democratic, Western-oriented Iraq is in our national interest. As long as we are progressing toward that goal, Americans are probably willing to accept more losses than conventional wisdom assumes.
The greatest danger to the White House is that the scandal, after a month of grueling unrest and violence, will deepen concerns that Iraq is spiraling out of control. The public may be willing to accept a steady stream of casualties as the painful price of success; it will probably have much less tolerance for lives sacrificed to a mission in disarray.
Most Americans accept Bush’s insistence that the U.S. will benefit if we can steer Iraq to democracy and stability. But polls show they are no longer sure he knows how to reach that destination. In this confusing and increasingly inhospitable terrain, the photos from Abu Ghraib are likely to leave more Americans wondering whether we are losing our compass altogether.
Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times’ website at www.latimes.com/brownstein.