No waves in Maine signal heavy seas for Bush

The President of the U.S. knows he's in trouble when he can't get a cheer on the beach in Ogunquit

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The Gazette, Friday, July 6, 2007

How much trouble is George W. Bush in? Well, when the president of the United States flew over Ogunquit Beach in Maine the other day, no one waved.

Bush was on his way from a military base near Portsmouth, N.H., to his father's place at Kennebunkport, for the long July 4 weekend.

Hundreds of people looked up at the passing flight of five military helicopters, four of them in protective formation around the fifth, Marine One. The presidential seal was clearly visible, but there wasn't a friendly wave in sight.

The next morning, when he went fishing off Walker's Point with the first president Bush, CNN duly recorded the video, but also reported Dubya's latest job approval numbers, which were somewhere in the high 20s.

In modern times, only Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon have carried comparable disapproval scores into the late stages of their presidencies. All three were hobbled by foreign wars or domestic scandals. The second George Bush is burdened by both.

Bush's problems began when he shifted the focus of the war on terror from the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan to his quest to unseat Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The buildup in 2002 and the invasion in 2003 proved to be the easy part.

There were no terrorists in Iraq then, but there are now in the murderous insurgency that has claimed six times as many U.S. lives as were lost in the invasion, to say nothing of tens of thousands of civilian Iraqi casualties.

Quite apart from the trumped-up rationale for the invasion - weapons of mass destruction that proved to be non-existent - the Americans evidently didn't understand the neighbourhood and the inherent tensions between the Kurds in the north, the Sunnis in the middle and the Shiites in the south. Someone should have left a copy of Paris 1919 on Bush's bedside table. Anyone who has read it has been struck by Margaret MacMillan's account of how Iraq was cobbled together at the Versailles conference, which determined the geopolitical map after the First World War.

Four years after Bush's invasion, the latest and last best hope for achieving security in Iraq is the American troop surge under the ablest U.S. commander, General David Petraeus, who previously enjoyed significant success in winning hearts and minds.

And then there was the Katrina effect in 2005, the surge of summer storms that lashed the Gulf Coast of the U.S., leaving New Orleans in near ruins. The relief and rebuilding effort has been marked by staggering government inefficiency and shocking incompetence by the Bush administration.

The reckoning occurred in last year's mid-term congressional elections, when Bush's Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress. Bush, already entering the lame-duck phase of his presidency, was suddenly done like dinner.

Last week, Bush's generous immigration bill, including amnesties for millions of illegal residents and undocumented workers, died in the Senate.

It was equally a bad day for Bush on the Iraqi front last week when Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate foreign affairs committee, openly broke ranks with the White House and said, more in sorrow than in anger, that the troop surge wasn't working.

Bush might have hoped that a weekend of summit diplomacy at Poppy's place would have provided some respite. The Man from Vlad, President Putin of Russia, flew in for a couple of days of lobster dinners and bass fishing, but the two leaders remained far apart over U.S. plans to deploy a missile defence system in eastern European countries of the former Evil Empire.

And then there's this week's blowback over Bush's treatment of Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Vice-President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff. Bush commuted the jail sentence Libby got for perjuring himself during an investigation into who blew the cover of CIA analyst Valerie Plame, whose husband had criticized the Iraq war.

While Bush is within his constitutional prerogatives, his commutation of Libby's jail term raises questions of the rule of law. Gerald Ford's pardon of Nixon in 1974 might have been the right thing to do in terms of turning the page on Watergate, but it probably cost him the election in 1976.

It might already be too late for the Republicans in 2008. Fundraising for presidential campaigns is a leading indicator of a party's prospects, and yesterday the New York Times reported that the Republicans' fundraising was off sharply in the second quarter.

The top Republican fundraiser, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, raised $14 million in the period, down from $20 million in the first quarter. By contrast, Democratic hopeful Barack Obama raised $31 million, $4 million more than Hillary Clinton.

So, Democrats are raising twice as much money as Republicans. That's one sign of trouble. Another is that the president flew over a Maine beach and nobody waved.

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