David Frum October 29th, 2005 at 12:00 am
President George W Bush’s bad week may yet prove the administration’s great turning point. None of the reverses need be fatal; each contains an opportunity to move back onto a more successful path. Everything depends on the wisdom, self-discipline, and perspective of the President.
Friday’s indictments of Lewis Libby are one opportunity. For while Mr Libby now stands in serious legal peril, the broader administration has been exonerated of intentional wrongdoing. From the start, there have been two competing theories of what happened in the CIA leak scandal. Call them the “big” theory and the “little” theory.
According to the “big” theory, a sinister cabal of senior administration officials deceived the United States into fighting an unnecessary war in Iraq. When threatened with exposure by Ambassador Joseph Wilson, they attempted to punish him by naming his wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA secret agent – compromising the nation’s security and the lives of Ms Plame’s contacts.
Under the big theory, this is a scandal of manipulation and deceit for political ends. Ironically though, the only proven misstatements in the whole story are those that Mr Wilson himself confessed to a Senate investigating committee.
Although he had told reporters that he had detected the forgery of the notorious fake Niger documents, which alleged that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from the African country, he had never seen them at all. His report of his visit to Niger in February 2002 was unhelpfully ambiguous.
The reporter Bob Woodward put the point in a CNN interview on Thursday: “When Joe Wilson went to Niger before all this blew up, in fact, before there was a war, he came back and he reported, and [those] who have read the Senate intelligence committee on this know his report was very ambiguous. In fact, most of the analysts at the CIA said that Wilson’s findings when he went to Niger supported the conclusion that there was some deal with Iraq.”
Under the “little” theory, there was no deception, no conspiracy, no punishment, and no compromise of security. Mr Libby, as chief of staff to the vice-president Dick Cheney, called reporters to contradict a false story that Mr Wilson had told about his boss.
In so doing, Mr Libby apparently revealed that Ms Plame worked for the CIA. It is not at all clear, however, that he breached the law against intentionally disclosing the identity of a covert agent because it is not at all clear that Ms Plame ever was a covert agent. Under the little theory, if Mr Libby had only told the truth about what had happened, there would have been no crime at all.
Patrick Fitzgerald, the federal prosecutor, has now almost formally confirmed the little theory. He broadly hinted that there will be no more indictments. He indicted only one person, which suggests that he could find no evidence of conspiracy. He did not charge Mr Libby with exposing a covert agent or even with the lesser office of unauthorised release of classified information.
On the contrary, he went out of his way to stress: “We’re not saying that Libby knowingly outed a covert agent.” All of which suggests that “Plamegate” may not amount to much of a scandal at all. And that creates an opportunity for the president to put his administration back to work.
The Harriet Miers fiasco creates opportunities for Mr Bush to regenerate his administration and rally his supporters.
Over the past three weeks, we have learned a great deal about how the Miers appointment to the US Supreme Court happened. A tiny circle inside the White House, led by the chief of staff, Andrew Card, disregarded its own procedures for vetting judges, and encouraged the president to reward a loyal retainer. The result was a breach of faith with Mr Bush’s political base.
Conservatives had loyally bitten their tongues for five years as the president over-spent, proposed amnesty for illegal immigrants, imposed tariffs on foreign steel, repealed the farm reforms of the 1990s and created a hugely costly new prescription-drug programme for seniors. They kept quiet because Mr Bush promised to transform the courts and because he, by and large, honoured his promise.
The Miers appointment violated Mr Bush’s commitment. Beyond that, the nomination evoked wide-ranging doubts among conservatives about the president and the way in which his White House was run. The carelessness with which the decision seemed to have been made, the high-handedness, the apparent indifference to merit, the failure to ask elementary questions: these triggered unhappy spasms of recognition. Similar faults could be seen in the Hurricane Katrina failure, in the mishandling of Iraq and the larger war on terrorism, in relations with the allies … the list goes on.
Miers was an important mistake, but it was a mistake that echoed with disturbing familiarity so many other mistakes of the recent past.
The Bush presidency has been a presidency of big plans and noble ambitions: the reform of social security and the tax system, regime change in the Middle East, cultural change in the United States – but again and again those grand plans have been entrusted to inadequate hands. The tax overhaul has been presided over by the weakest secretary of the treasury in two generations.
The general in command of Iraq, Tommy Franks, not only neglected to make plans for the occupation of the country – but resigned to sign a huge book deal within weeks of the fall of Baghdad. As for the administration’s often inarticulate public diplomacy, Mr Bush assigned that responsibility to Karen Hughes, not a person especially attuned to the world beyond America’s shores.
In the Miers case, the insularity of the White House decision-making process divided Bush supporters, and ended by inflicting a personal defeat on the President himself.
Could that shock jolt Mr Bush into reinventing his staffing? Second-term White Houses often run into trouble because of staff turnover. Aides leave, they are replaced by their deputies. Then the deputies leave, and are succeeded by their deputies. Six years on, the administration is being run by fourth-stringers. Presidents, meanwhile, become so consumed with their job that they cannot focus on personnel decisions and so end up acquiescing as the quality of their staff slowly deteriorates.
A crisis can force a president to confront personnel issues and if ever a failure demanded a personnel rethink, it is the Miers fiasco. Any president needs a staff that will tell him the truth, that will bring him bad news, that is not afraid of him, that has no illusions about him, that will help him to act on his best instincts and resist his worst.
This is a moment for Mr Bush to do a top-to-bottom renovation, especially if he has to part with Karl Rove, his chief adviser, either because Mr Rove is consumed by his legal difficulties or because he voluntarily departs to earn a private-sector salary to pay what must be crushing legal bills.
And if Mr Bush nominates an outstanding conservative jurist in place of Ms Miers, he will energise his conservative supporters. It may be too late to restore their faith in its previous intensity. But enough can be restored to provide him with a huge transfusion of political strength.
Even in October’s dismal polls showing Mr Bush at less than 40 per cent approval, his ratings among conservatives continued to exceed 80 per cent. Self-described conservatives make up about 35 per cent of the American electorate, versus less than 25 per cent for self-described liberals.
That offers a powerful advantage to Republican politicians, especially since the conservative coalition seems both more disciplined and more usefully geographically distributed than the smaller, more fractious, and more geographically concentrated liberal bloc.
Political capital can be squandered. It can also be recovered by wise and timely action. This bad week need not be the beginning of the end for President Bush. It could be the beginning of his next great comeback.