White House crisis is just beginning

By Ian Bremmer

Financial Times

Published: October 28 2005

Over the past several months, the steady depletion of President George W. Bush’s political capital has complicated US efforts to promote an ambitious domestic and international agenda. With the end of the investigation by Patrick Fitzgerald, special counsel, into the outing of Valerie Plame, the former Central Intelligence Agency operative, the trend may well reach a tipping point. Expectation is rising that the grand jury considering evidence in the matter could issue indictments of some key Bush administration officials. The implications of such indictments for the continued effectiveness of the Bush White House are likely to be profound.

Some pundits have compared the Bush administration’s current troubles to those that afflicted the two most recent second-term presidents – the Iran-Contra scandal that plagued the Reagan administration and the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton. But these comparisons ignore three important differences between the past and present scandals, and understate the potential magnitude of the Plame investigation for both domestic and international politics. 

First, unlike the probes into the Reagan and Clinton administrations, the current investigation goes to the heart of an ongoing US military conflict. The Plame episode began when a former US ambassador – Joseph Wilson, Ms Plame’s husband – publicly questioned the integrity of Mr Bush’s case for invading Iraq. It is simply not plausible that the grand jury’s investigation of the Plame affair could have lasted this long, and required the testimony of so many foreign-policy architects, if the investigation focused purely on the outing of one covert CIA operative. In fact, reports suggest the investigation may refocus public attention on forged documents used by the administration to bolster its case for the Iraq war, which continues to claim American lives in pursuit of an uncertain goal.

Second, the US is today more directly involved in the management of vitally important international conflicts than in 1987 or 1998. The Iran-Contra scandal focused on a covert operation in a Central American cold war backwater, as enormous changes were beginning to take shape behind the Iron Curtain with little direct US involvement. The Lewinsky matter did little to distract from US and French efforts to face down Slobodan Milosevic over Serb aggression in Kosovo.

But the Bush administration’s direct engagement on a host of international fronts – from China and Iraq to Iran and North Korea – is critical for international political stability. The administration has engaged the Chinese leadership on a broad range of potentially contentious issues. In Iraq, the continued presence of US troops enables the new Iraqi government to develop the capacity to defend itself against enemies, foreign and domestic. Only the US can push negotiations over Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programmes to a head. Disruptions within an administration whose key policy architects may be severely distracted – and, in some cases, pressured to resign – could substantially change the dynamic and create uncertainty on all these fronts.

Third, Mr Bush’s current public approval numbers are much lower than those of his predecessors at the height of their second-term scandals. In the Iran-Contra hearings, Reagan’s popularity remained around 45 per cent in the most respected national polls. Mr Clinton’s numbers actually rose above 60 per cent during his impeachment process. Mr Bush’s job approval ratings have fallen to 39 per cent. If senior administration officials are indicted, the president’s handling of the resulting crisis of confidence will determine whether this historically low rating rises or falls even further.

In addition, Mr Bush faces a higher degree of scepticism – even resistance – within his own party. This is all the more striking because, while Ronald Reagan and Mr Clinton faced opposition-controlled Congresses, Mr Bush’s Republicans now control both the House and Senate. In addition, Reagan and Mr Clinton’s congressional allies could be counted on to support the impending presidential candidacies of their vice-presidents. But the 2008 campaign season is shaping up as an electoral free-for-all within both parties.

In politics, timing is everything. The fall-out from the Plame investigations has arrived at an unusually difficult time for Republicans in general and the administration in particular. The US media are already focused on problems that would not otherwise draw as much attention and are linking them to the White House. Hence Washington insiders’ growing fascination with the likely next big scandal: the fraud investigation of Jack Abramoff, the master lobbyist. Although he is most infamous as the “fixer” for Tom DeLay, the recently deposed House majority leader, the investigation into Mr Abramoff’s lobbying efforts has turned up links to the White House via former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed’s influence with Karl Rove, Mr Bush’s political adviser. Similarly, complaints over Mr Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court became a bipartisan drumbeat of opposition and yesterday forced her withdrawal.

The convergence of these problems into a kind of political “perfect storm” raises the likelihood that expectations of indictments will create an enduring crisis at the heart of the administration. How Mr Bush weathers this storm – and how the public judges his next moves – may determine whether the president is able to accomplish much of anything before his term ends in 2008. In the meantime, the challenges posed by Iraqi reconstruction, China’s relentless expansion and the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programmes are not receding, and the sharpening of political knives in Washington may have only just begun.

The writer is president of Eurasia Group