Our Paralyzed Elite

WASHINGTON, D.C. — George W. Bush is in big trouble, and so are we.

In this town, there is barely disguised glee that the president so badly bumbled the rescue-and-recovery operation post-Katrina that he has lost the aura of a strong, engaged and decisive leader.

Democrats and their coalition partners in the media are openly gloating that Bush’s fumbling proves them right: He is the fortunate son who is beyond his depth in an office he would not have won had it not been for his name, connections and a friendly Supreme Court.

The piling on begins to grate, but that is the nature of politics here. Vince Foster was right. Ruining people is sport in this city. Especially presidents. When Nixon was mired in Watergate, Reagan ensnared in Iran-Contra and Clinton embroiled in the Monica mess, Washington was whistling, "Happy Days Are Here Again."

But even if Bush is in trouble, why are we?

It is not because his approval rating has plunged to 40 percent, the nadir of his presidency, but because support is evaporating for a war upon the outcome of which hangs America’s position in the Middle East and the world.

According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, 67 percent disapprove of how Bush is prosecuting the war. Only 32 percent approve. Three in five think America made a mistake going in. Close to two-thirds of the American people think we should start withdrawing troops now.

By a CBS/New York Times poll, only 7 percent of the nation is willing to cut domestic spending to pay for this war, only 20 percent, one in five, is willing to raise taxes. A majority of Americans wish this war had never happened and would just go away.

How, then, does President Bush, for the three and a half years left to him, persuade the American people to keep spending the blood of their soldiers and the treasure of the nation to fight it?

Undeniably, there is progress. The enemy is suffering losses. U.S.-trained Iraqi troops are more often taking the initiative. But the British army’s jailbreak of two commandos locked up in Basra has ignited an explosion in the Shia south and revealed that militia tied to the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al Sadr, perhaps aided by Iran, is embedded in, if it does not control, the Basra police

As for the victory in Tal Afar, a Turkmen city, the Iraqi troops we assisted were apparently Kurds, which has further inflamed our estranged NATO ally Turkey.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, here last week, put no gloss on Riyadh’s alarm. Iraq is hurtling toward a civil war that may become a regional war, he said, with Iran intervening to aid the Shia, Turkey attacking the Kurds, and Sunni Arab nations aiding their dispossessed and embattled Sunni brethren. "All the dynamics are pulling the country apart," said Prince Saud.

The White House sees the constitution holding Iraq together until elections are held, but Prince Saud is dismissive: "(E)lections won’t do it. A constitution alone won’t do it."

Though most Americans have lost confidence in Bush as a war president, and believe the war was a mistake and we should start bringing our troops home, no elected leader of national stature is demanding an end to U.S. involvement or a new policy for victory.

Our political elite is in paralysis. Sen. McCain talks of more troops, but has not broken with Bush on his refusal to send them. Sen. Feingold calls for a timetable for withdrawal, but took a pass on the big antiwar demonstration in Washington over the weekend

Reason for the reticence?

Critics fear this war could end badly, if not disastrously, for the United States. No one wants to say anything that can be used to substantiate a future charge of having given aid and comfort to the enemy in a time of war and helping to ensure an American defeat.

Both parties bear moral responsibility for the mess we are in. The Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld Republicans for beating the drums for war on a country that did not threaten us. The Clinton-Kerry-Biden-Edwards Democrats for giving Bush a blank check to take us to war to remove the issue from the 2002 election. Indeed, Democrats are the more indictable. At least Bush-Cheney believed in the war.

But George W. Bush led us in, and it is his legacy as well as his country’s standing as a world power and U.S. vital interests in this critical oil-rich region that are riding on the outcome.

Does Bush have a plan to win? Does he have a plan to cut our losses and end our involvement in a way not ruinous to the global economy or America’s position in the Persian Gulf and Middle East?

In that CBS/New York Times poll, 75 percent of Bush’s countrymen said he has no plan. Yet, he is president for the next 40 months.

Yes, we are all in this boat together, and it is taking on water.