Bush's first term casts a shadow over the second

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- On the eve of his second inauguration, President Bush believes his re-election wipes clean all responsibility to account for the glaring mistakes of his first term, which was loaded with controversy.

The man who in an earlier news conference could not recall a single mistake he had made said the other day in a Washington Post interview: "We had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 elections. The American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me."

If that means the re-elected president thinks he's home free on criticism of the war in Iraq, however, he's going to be disappointed, especially as wounded Democrats labor to find an effective line of attack against him.

While a second presidential term is regarded romantically as an occasion for a re-elected president to make a fresh start, with changes in his Cabinet, it is more often used simply for a fine-tuning of the path set in the first term.

Despite occasional grand clean-sweep gestures such as President Richard M. Nixon's firing of his first-term Cabinet in embarking on his second term, presidents the second time around almost always try to finish what they've begun.

This is especially so when a president repeats the oath of office with a war still going on. With this president's main business of his first term not accomplished -- the war in Iraq, with an intent to make the country safe for democracy -- it remains his dominant and imperative task for the next four years.

That focus is unavoidable, for all of Mr. Bush's post-election efforts to inject such issues as partial privatization of Social Security and tort reform.

It's understandable that the re-elected president would like to eliminate all of the nagging questions from his first term on how he led the country into the invasion of Iraq and who was responsible for the various fiascoes that have stemmed from it.

But just last week, two other "accountability moments" surfaced that were reminders of those questions. First was the disclosure that the administration's search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the prime rationale for the invasion, had been quietly ended last month in acknowledgment that none had been found.

The second was a report by the CIA's National Intelligence Council that Iraq had become the prime training ground for terrorists as the Iraqi insurgency has mounted. The council's chairman, Robert L. Hutchings, called Iraq "a magnet for international terrorist activity." Rather than the invasion making America safer, as the president declared when Saddam Hussein was captured, it has turned Iraq into a prime breeder of global terrorism.

In light of all that happened in his first term, it's surprising that Mr. Bush would speak of an "accountability moment" regarding an administration in which accountability has been so notably missing.

Only the heads of minor figures have rolled in the lack of plans to deal with the post-invasion insurgency, the failure to provide sufficient U.S. forces to put it down and armor to protect them, the shortages of National Guard and Reserve troops and the prison abuse scandal.

The transition from the first to the second Bush term has occasioned the resignation of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, the one major player who from all indications waged a losing battle against some of the administration's most wrong-headed decisions on Iraq.

Also departing is the first-term attorney general, John Ashcroft, a prime architect of the Patriot Act, which has been criticized by civil liberties groups. But Mr. Ashcroft will be replaced by White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, if he is confirmed by the Senate. Mr. Gonzales has been criticized as a defender of torture in contravention of the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners.

Meanwhile, the enlisted man accused of being the ringleader of the Abu Ghraib prison outrages, Army Spc. Charles A. Graner Jr., has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for his actions. Superior officers on up to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld continue on their unchastized ways.

So much for accountability moments as Mr. Bush's second term begins.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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