Israel's war on Lebanon threatens political comeback for Bush

The priority for the US president will be turning short-term predicament into long-term opportunity.

Gulf News

The latest crisis in the Middle East has disrupted US President George W. Bush's plans domestically and internationally at a sensitive juncture, reopening divisions with allies abroad and jeopardising attempts to restore public confidence at home, according to officials, analysts and diplomats.

The discord at a conference in Rome on Wednesday over a proposed ceasefire in Israel and Lebanon underscored the widening gap between the United States and Europe over how to stop the fighting.

And the images of mayhem from the two-week-old war, combined with the rising death toll in Iraq, have further rattled a domestic audience that polls show was already uncertain about Bush's leadership.

For the president, the timing could not be much worse.

In a second term marked by one setback after another, the White House was in the midst of a rebuilding effort aimed at a political comeback before November's critical mid-term elections.

Now the president faces the challenge of responding to events that seem to be spinning out of control again, all but sidelining his domestic agenda for the moment and complicating his effort to rally the world to stop nuclear programmes in Iran and North Korea.

The crisis imperils one of Bush's signature ambitions. This is a president who eschewed Middle East peacemaking of the past as futile, embarking instead on a grand plan to remake the region.

A year ago, a wave of reform seemed to take hold. Yet today radicalism is on the rise, Iran is believed to be closer to nuclear weapons and Bush is sending thousands more troops to Baghdad to quell spiralling violence.

"You've got Lebanon, Israel and the [occupied] Palestinian territories aflame, you've got Iraq still aflame, and you've got the Iran issue now unresolved," said Carlos Pascual, a senior State Department official until this year.

"It has hurt the US internationally because it has only reinforced in everyone's mind that the US was not being strategic, it was not looking ahead to how to handle the whole panoply of issues in a way that's both realistic and effective."

Bush advisers who have been buffeted in the past year by a catastrophic hurricane, rising petrol prices, a failed Social Security initiative, Republican revolts, criminal investigations and a relentless overseas war said they have grown accustomed to constant crisis.

"This is a new normal for our administration in the last couple years," said one senior official. "You begin to expect the unexpected."

The priority for Bush will be turning short-term predicament into long-term opportunity.

"Right now, with the images coming out of Lebanon, the situation with people trying to get out, I'm sure that's unsettling for people," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy.

For now, at least, Bush's strong defence of Israel's right to respond to Hezbollah attacks has generated bipartisan support in Congress.

If anything, some Democrats are trying to position themselves as even more pro-Israel than he is, attacking the president because Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki has condemned Israel's military strikes in southern Lebanon.

But the stark difference between the pro-Israel stance in Washington and the criticism of Israel in many European and Arab capitals underlines the impact on Bush's foreign policy.

Bush has laboured since his re-election to mend the tattered relations with European allies following the Iraq invasion and, in the view of many analysts, had succeeded to a large extent.

He was ready to reap the benefit of this diplomacy when he left for Europe and the G-8 summit in St Petersburg earlier this month, confident that he had a broad consensus with Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China to take stronger measures against Iran for defying them on its nuclear programme.

Disproportionate response

By the time Bush arrived in St Petersburg, however, the latest conflict had broken out and Iran was shoved onto the back burner.

Although European leaders agreed that Hezbollah was to blame for the fighting, they condemned what they called Israel's disproportionate response and insisted on an immediate ceasefire, while Bush resisted any instant cessation of hostilities and effectively gave Israel leeway to destroy as much of Hezbollah as it could.

At home, political strategists said, Bush faces the perception that he is presiding over one brushfire after another, hindered in his efforts to advance a positive agenda at a time when Republican control of Congress appears at risk.

His most prominent domestic priority of the year, a comprehensive immigration plan, already seemed stalled until after the elections.

The escalation of killing in Iraq may have unravelled any chance of major US troop withdrawals before the elections. And the conversation is now dominated by rockets flying in and out of southern Lebanon.

"It significantly contributes to the general sense that they don't have a formula for governing and for leading," said Steve Ricchetti, who was deputy White House chief of staff under Clinton.

"There's nothing more important to a president than the public sensing that he has a vision and the ability to lead. And I think that has diminished dramatically for them and it presents an enormous political problem."

Republican candidates who are already nervous with a commander-in-chief whose approval ratings are stuck in the 30s have grown wary of the impact of the latest fighting.

"It may not only intrude in the mid-term elections, it could envelop them," said V. Lance Tarrance Jr., a prominent Republican consultant.

On the one hand, he said, it could give Bush a chance "to demonstrate presidential leadership," and voters are often reluctant to shift leadership in a moment of crisis.

On the other hand, he said, "it could force a large-scale regional conflict that increases" the vote against incumbents "to such an extent that people worry about the country".

The White House sees the risk but is banking, in part, on the Democrats' history of not capitalising on such moments.

Bush advisers point to 2004, when the insurgency in Iraq appeared particularly bad, and yet the president won re-election and Republicans retained both houses of Congress.

Moreover, they note, Bush has three months to paint the Middle East conflict in terms of his vision of the fight against terrorism.

"It may take awhile to settle out," said the senior Bush official. "Whether it happens before the election or not, I don't know."