Watch foreign policy and counter-terrorism
We've had a Dust-Up at the Los Angeles Times once before on the "Scooter" Libby trial. It's a pleasure to have a chance to have another, this time on a larger, more consequential topic: the Bush administration's final year in office and its legacy.
President Bush has 11 months in office; what is left for him to do? Quite a lot, for better or worse, as he pursues two overall objectives: setting his most important policies on as durable a footing as possible and leaving the institution of the presidency as powerful as he can. Like all final-year presidents, Bush has more room to maneuver on foreign policy than he does on domestic matters. His major second-term domestic initiatives having failed, Bush will focus on solidifying accomplishments already in hand in that area, particularly making his tax cuts permanent and extending the No Child Left Behind Act. He will also respond on an ongoing basis to our unfolding economic difficulties, motivated in part, sensibly enough, by one of Bush's major objectives: to help get a Republican elected as his successor.
But it is on foreign policy and national security where presidents in general have the most flexibility and where Bush has staked his legacy that the more interesting developments will take place. On many issues, such as Iran or the Israeli-Palestinian issue, one of the key though obscure factors worth watching is the balance of power within the administration between the hawks around Vice Dick President Dick Cheney and the relative moderates, headed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But there seems to be less intra-administration disagreement on Bush's two signature issues Iraq and the campaign against Al Qaeda, where Bush will seek to constrain his successor as much as possible.
On Iraq, Bush's strategy seems clear: He will max out on troops to the end of his term and put in place a long-term bilateral agreement with Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's government to replace the United Nations mandate under which U.S. forces operate. A lot depends on whether the very welcome reduction in violence in Iraq that we have seen outlasts the return to pre-surge levels of troops later this year. What is unclear to me is what the plan is beyond stemming the violence and muddling along. What does seem clear is that the best we can hope for is to minimize the damage done by Bush's disastrously bad judgment to launch the war in the first place. With success having been redefined numerous times, I think it is safe to say that the Iraq war has been a net negative for the United States, not least in the larger campaign against Al Qaeda.
On that front, beyond preventing the next attack, what is left for the Bush administration is to set its counter-terrorism policies on a firmer footing. The effort to do so intersects with the administration's oft-stated ambition to leave the institution of the presidency as strong as possible because on counter-terrorism, it is more dependent on what Congress does. Interestingly, Bush has just recently encountered surprising resistance from the Democrats in Congress. Democrats in the House refused to go along with a bill modernizing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which among other things would grant retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that cooperated with the administration's almost certainly illegal Terrorist Surveillance Program.
Perhaps coincidentally, on the very same day, the House issued contempt citations for two top (one former, one current) White House officials. Similarly, in Congress we are seeing the unfolding public fallout from the Bush administration's decision, early in the campaign against Al Qaeda, to use torture in some of its interrogations of prisoners. Whether this presages more fights between Congress and the White House or just a few one-off occurrences will be one of the most interesting things to watch this coming year.
Looking forward to your thoughts.
Jeff Lomonaco is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota and co-editor, with Murray Waas, of "The United States v. I. Lewis Libby." He current work focuses on the tension between national security and civil liberties in the post- 9/11 period.
Democrats will make 2008 interesting
If you want to look at what President Bush hopes to accomplish in the final months of his presidency, you need to go back to the first months of his presidency.
On the basis of the issues in the 2000 campaign, Bush believed he was elected, basically, to do two things. The first was to cut taxes, because the grand issue of that campaign was what to do with our enormous, fabulous surplus. The second was to reform education. He had accomplished both by the end of his first six months in office. I think it's clear that, by Sept. 1, 2001, Bush was headed to a meandering, not-terribly-purpose-driven presidency. But then Sept. 11 happened, and he had a job for the next seven years.
So now, when he arranges his priorities, they are first, to preserve and extend his post-Sept. 11 policies, including the war in Iraq; second, make sure his tax cuts will be extended; and third, ensure there's not too much messing with No Child Left Behind.
The big one is obviously the war. What Bush is trying to do is to lock in his policies so his successor won't be able to change them. In October 2006, about 10 days before the midterm elections, I was with a group of conservative journalists who interviewed Bush in the Oval Office. When the talk got to long-term Iraq policy, this is what he said:
And one of the things we try to think about is how to institutionalize change so that certain things can't be undone. I fully recognize that part of the problem we have in our democracy is that change of government can be disruptive to try to do big things. But we've managed it before. We've been through the Cold War. We had a Harry S. Truman who fought the first battles of the Cold War in Korea, and yet the Cold War was continued by both Republicans and Democrats. So it's a different kind of struggle, but it's got the same kind of context to it, as far as I'm concerned.
On the domestic anti-terror front, don't downplay the issue of preventing the next attack it's a big, big deal. You never know one could come before these words are posted but if Bush is able to make it to Jan. 20, 2009, without another major attack on U.S. soil, that would be an impressive accomplishment.
Part of preventing attacks, of course, has been an extensive intelligence-gathering operation. And I have to say that I think what Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats are doing now as far as far as attempting to restrict the executive branch's ability to tap international phone calls involving Al Qaeda suspects is truly astonishing and will probably work out in Bush's favor in the end. I can only conclude that the Democrats' position House, not Senate is all about lawsuits and their desire to see telephone companies sued for cooperating with the government on urgent national security matters in the months after Sept. 11. What, is the Plaintiffs' Bar's support that important? It's just a terrible position for Democrats to take.
That leads me to something we might talk about the next time. I think the election of a Democratic House and Senate has been, overall, pretty good for Bush. It has put him on his toes at a time when he might otherwise be slouching toward the finish line, has given him a useful foil and has spurred him to action the surge comes to mind that he might not have taken had he not gotten a kick in the behind from the voters.
Byron York is the White House correspondent for National Review.