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2002 In Review: Bush At Peak of Power But Still Facing Political Perils

  • Andrew Tully

U.S. President George W. Bush has come a long way. From a disputed election victory in 2000, he is now at the height of his political popularity -- and power -- in the United States, and his Republican Party now controls both houses of Congress. But analysts say this recent growth of support for him by legislators probably will not have a significant impact on his foreign policy. And as RFE/RL reports, these same analysts say Bush's popularity could quickly decline.

Washington, 17 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush won increased support in the 5 November congressional elections, but analysts say this is likely to have little effect on how he conducts foreign policy.

In fact, political observers interviewed by RFE/RL say that despite greater support in the Senate and the House of Representatives, Bush could face the same problems that his father, former President George H. W. Bush, experienced a decade ago.

Because of an inability to deal with economic problems, the elder Bush lost his bid for a second White House term in 1992, and analysts say his son also could be a one-term president for the same reason. For the moment, however, the current U.S. president appears to have earned a politically unassailable hold on the White House.

With Bush's Republicans firmly in control of both houses of Congress, it would seem he has a free hand to pursue his foreign policy, particularly regarding the Middle East and Iraq.

But analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say Bush never really faced significant opposition from Congress on foreign policy, even when Democrats controlled the Senate.

And while some members of Congress questioned the wisdom of possibly going to war with Iraq, both houses voted by comfortable majorities to authorize Bush to take whatever action he deemed necessary to make Iraq disarm.

This attitude was reinforced by the widely felt determination in Congress to fight terrorism after the attacks on New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, according to James Lindsay, an analyst of international affairs at the Brookings Institution, a private policy research center in Washington. "September 11 ended, for the time being, partisan debate over the course of foreign policy. In keeping with a longtime rhythm in executive-legislative [presidential-congressional] relations, when Americans feel they're under threat, Congress tends to defer to presidential leadership. So the elections in November have no impact on the president's ability to carry out foreign policy. He's pretty much had carte blanche since September 11," Lindsay said.

But which party controls Congress does have some effect, according to Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Sabato told RFE/RL that a congressional house controlled by Democrats could create trouble for a Republican president if an important foreign-policy initiative of that president, such as a war, turned out badly. "Democrats would clearly defect [from supporting Bush]. If they controlled a house of Congress, it would matter. Well, they don't. And so the fact that Republicans have both houses of Congress will matter enormously as Bush prosecutes a war against Iraq, if indeed he does move in that direction," Sabato said.

In fact, Lindsay said that even members of Bush's own Republican Party could desert him if a war with Iraq turned disastrous, just as the faltering U.S. war in Southeast Asia became a political disaster for President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. "The challenge for the Bush administration is [to] make sure that it uses its power wisely and doesn't overreach. If it does overreach, it runs the risk of learning the lesson that [U.S. President] Lyndon Johnson learned in the 1960s, and that is the fact that if the public and Congress are with you on the takeoff of your foreign policy, it doesn't mean they will be there on the crash landing," Lindsay said.

A further history lesson for Bush is what happened to his father, former President George H.W. Bush. The elder Bush led a coalition of countries under the auspices of the United Nations to drive Iraqi occupation forces out of Kuwait in 1991. His public-approval ratings were very high immediately after the war. But his fortunes plummeted because Americans believed he was not dealing authoritatively with an economic recession that began in late 1991 and continued into 1992 -- a presidential election year.

Bush lost that election to former President Bill Clinton.

The current President Bush could face the same fate, according to Lindsay. He said that despite Bush's popularity on foreign affairs, the U.S. electorate is about evenly split on domestic policies, including the economy. Therefore, Lindsay said, his popularity could erode rapidly if the economy remains sluggish or gets worse.

Sabato agrees. "If the economy turns sour," he said, "nothing can save the second President Bush. He will face the very same fate as his father. Having Congress on your side really doesn't make any difference in a situation like that, because even if positive steps are taken [to stimulate the economy], the economy is like a giant ocean liner: It takes a long time to turn it around."

According to Sabato, Bush also has to be wary of opposition from outside the United States. He noted that both Russia and France made the Bush administration work hard to come up with a UN resolution on Iraq that, in itself, would not automatically trigger military action if Baghdad did not strictly implement its demands.

Sabato said this resistance from Russia and France was not surprising, given the history of relations between the United States and the governments of Europe. Sabato said that U.S. presidents, particularly Republican U.S. presidents, tend to be unpopular in Europe. This is because even the most conservative European political parties are usually to the left of the Republican Party in the United States. "Europeans regard Republican [U.S.] presidents -- to put it bluntly -- as barbaric, whether it's the death penalty in America or their willingness to send American troops abroad in Iraq or in a hundred other places. There's just simply a major difference of opinion, a major difference in culture and lifestyle, and it's unbridgeable," Sabato said.

But Sabato said European leaders probably will not resist Bush's foreign-policy initiatives too much. He said that just as Russia and France pushed the United States hard on the UN resolution on Iraq, other European countries will push the U.S. president "to the edge," before backing off. Most European leaders are unlikely to oppose Bush too much for fear of making an enemy out of the world's only superpower.

But Sabato cited the case of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who angered Bush by declaring that his country would never join the United States in a war against Iraq. For that, the Bush administration publicly snubbed Schroeder.