WASHINGTON, Jul 18 (IPS) - Make no mistake: U.S. President George W. Bush is in very big trouble. Whereas a week ago, people here were talking about the dread "V" word -- for Vietnam -- this week the dreaded "W" word -- for Watergate -- was back in vogue, even as the "V" word was still in use. Watergate plus Vietnam is about the worst combination for a sitting president that anyone could possibly imagine.
And the almost daily announcement on the news that another U.S. soldier was killed in an attack in Iraq, bringing to 32, 33, 34, the number of troops killed since Pres. Bush declared an end to major hostilities in the war recalls nothing so much as the daily reminders on the evening news 23 years ago that killed the presidency of Jimmy Carter: "Day 385 of the American hostage crisis in Iran".
Short of a miracle -- such as the discovery of a vast cache of weapons of mass destruction in an Iraqi mountainside in circumstances that clearly indicate that it was under Saddam Hussein's control as of Mar. 18, 2003, or the return of robust economic growth that can quickly bring the unemployment rate down to five percent -- there is probably only one way that Bush can save his presidency at this point.
But the cost in personnel, policy and pride will be extremely high.
To save his administration, Bush must now essentially abandon the aggressive unilateralism that has dominated his foreign policy since even before Sep. 11, 2001; ask forgiveness from U.S. allies who refused to join his "coalition of the willing" into Iraq; and return to the United Nations Security Council for a new resolution that will give the world body control over the occupation.
As India -- whose rejection of Bush's request for as many as 20,000 troops to act as mercenaries for U.S. foreign policy struck a devastating blow to the imperial dreams of the Pentagon hawks -- made clear this week, it, as well as other nations, would be willing to provide peacekeepers and other kinds of support to the occupation so long as the U.N. Security Council authorises it.
That is what U.S. lawmakers -- both Republicans and Democrats -- want desperately, as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan found out during a brief visit with many of them after a White House visit with Bush himself Monday. That is also what U.S. foreign-policy establishment -- whose cautions about the rush to war were ignored or mocked by the neo-conservatives and right-wing hawks who hijacked foreign policy after 9/11 -- are calling for. That is even what Bush's own economic and political advisers have begun to whisper.
Their message: "The United States cannot by itself afford the burdens -- either economically or politically -- of occupying Iraq. We need help, and lots of it, even though we know that we will have to give up control to get it".
Even more, it is the message of what many here refer to as "the permanent government" -- the professionals and civil servants who staff the national-security bureaucracies, in particular. The are clearly fed up with the arrogance and hubris of the hawks centred in the offices of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney who in their view have driven the country into a quagmire.
Thus, CIA director George Tenet, grilled by senators in a closed hearing Wednesday, while taking full responsibility for the reference in Bush's State of the Union speech to Hussein's alleged efforts to obtain uranium from Africa, also deftly pointed his finger directly at hawks in the White House and the Pentagon as the parties who pushed hard for its inclusion.
Thus, Gen. John Abizaid, the new commander of allied forces in Iraq, hand-picked by Rumsfeld, explicitly contradicted his boss in his first appearance before Congress Wednesday when he said that U.S. forces there are facing a "classical guerrilla-type campaign" that is becoming more effective and may be organised at the regional level.
Thus, officials at the State Department and the CIA are leaking damning information about the hawks's efforts to silence, intimidate, and circumvent analysts who disagreed with their cocksure predictions about how the Iraqis would greet U.S. forces as "liberators", how few troops would be needed for the occupation, how easily the country could be transformed into a working democracy; and how quickly the economy would be back on its feet and pumping millions of barrels of oil to thirsty SUVs back in the U.S..
Come September, these deep throats are likely to be singing publicly in hearings on Capitol Hill, unless something changes radically.
Even if Bush and the hawks could stand up to them, however, there are also the soldiers who are actually in Iraq and who are making no secret about how angry they are. While radio talk show hosts debated whether the uranium reference in Bush's speech was justified or not this week, the story that carried the most wallop in Washington was the interviews on ABC's "Good Morning America" with troops in Fallujah that aired Wednesday.
"If Donald Rumsfeld were here," said one, "I'd ask him for his resignation", while another told his reporter that he had his own "Most Wanted" deck of cards. "The aces in my deck are Paul Bremer, Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush and Paul Wolfowitz". Meanwhile, career officers are telling reporters that the Iraq deployment threatens to destroy the army's ability to recruit and retain its troops.
This is poison for a president.
There are signs that Bush realises this, particularly after meeting with Annan. Before this week, Washington showed little interest in returning to the U.N. for a new resolution. But that changed this week, as Secretary of State Colin Powell began sounding out U.S. allies -- including German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer -- about what kind of resolution could persuade Berlin to help out.
Annan himself was encouraging. Diplomatic sources pointed to his statement Wednesday in which, after noting the divisions that existed on the Council before the war, he stressed that "now that the war is over, we should focus on stabilising and building a peaceful and prosperous Iraq".
"It's getting more and more obvious that the Council's leverage (vis-a-vis Washington) is increasing," said one source who noted the growing sense in the U.S. capital that the optimistic predictions of the hawks had put the president in serious peril.
The question is what will be the U.N.'s price for bailing the administration out, and will Bush be willing to pay it?