War, Terrorism, the Economy: Bush Can't Catch a Break

This is the summer when the world is beset by spreading terrorist wars, nuclear rogue states, skyrocketing oil prices, a jittery economy and political upheaval here at home.

President Bush took office in 2001 with an ambitious domestic agenda and passed some big reforms, including a $1.7 trillion tax-cut plan. But his presidency has been slammed by one crisis after another that has stalled or blocked some of his biggest initiatives. "It’s as if this president can’t seem to get a break," former Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta told me recently.

Throughout American history, presidents have had to deal with crises of enormous magnitude, but seldom in recent times has any president been confronted with so many during his terms in office. Starting with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, followed by the corporate and accounting scandals that rocked our economy, devastating hurricanes from which we are still recovering, and nuclear threats from Iran to North Korea.

"What next, I wonder," a senior White House official remarked to me last month. He got his answer sooner than he expected.

Mounting terrorist attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan were already posing tougher military challenges for the United States. Then Islamist Hezbollah radicals in Southern Lebanon and Hamas Palestinians in the Gaza Strip attacked Israel — creating two new fronts in the rapidly expanding terrorist war.

The Hezbollah offensive — armed with rockets (many of them precision-guided) from Iran — shocked Israeli officials with its full fury, displaying guerrilla warfare skills that showed how far terrorist tactics have advanced since the early days when Osama bin Laden’s Taliban forces hid in caves and Al Qaeda car bombers struck sporadically in Baghdad.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich thinks we are entering the early stages of a third world war against well-trained and armed guerrilla forces in the Mideast, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere, who seek to bring down democratic governments through mass terror and death.

Guerrilla warfare is as old as history, but it remains the most difficult to combat, even in the era of modern warfare, which is often ill-equipped to defeat it. "It is the most difficult kind of war ever," Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, a member of Israel’s general staff, told The Washington Post last week.

The newly expanded two-front wars in Lebanon and Gaza are having destabilizing repercussions at home and abroad, politically, economically and militarily — often in ways that are not clearly discernable right now.

For the time being, Israel’s war has pushed the war in Iraq off the front pages, giving the Bush administration some breathing room to recalibrate its battle tactics. Additional forces are being shifted into Baghdad, where Al Qaeda and sectarian militias have significantly increased attacks in a bold attempt to undermine Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s new government.

Here at home, the wider war certainly reinforces Bush’s arguments that if the United States were to begin pulling out of Iraq now, it would only encourage terrorist forces to expand their attacks in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.

The severity of the fighting over there only increases the stakes for the United States and our allies in what has truly become a global war on terror.

Bush will make the case for what’s at stake in the midterm elections as he plays his administration’s strongest political card: who can keep us safe from terrorism. Polls still give Bush and the Republicans the edge on this issue, which now looms larger than ever as a result of the events in the past few weeks.

But with this upheaval comes fear and uncertainty that has roiled the financial markets, pushed up oil prices to more than $70 a barrel, and, with it, gasoline and natural-gas prices fueling inflationary pressures that can only encourage the Fed’s tighter money policies.

That will only serve to slow U.S. and global economies in the second half of this year, and perhaps in 2007, if Wall Street’s economic forecasters are to be believed.

I think such predictions are a bit premature at this point for a number of reasons.

The biggest: There is a huge head of steam behind the emerging global economic giants that is not going to dissipate anytime soon. China, India and oil-rich Russia are growing by leaps and bounds, along with a middle class that will only expand their consumer markets and our export sales. Japan’s economy is recovering nicely, and once-dormant Europe shows new economic life that was almost unimaginable a few years ago.

Meanwhile, to say that Bush has a lot of problems on his plate is putting it mildly. But that’s what we pay presidents to handle.