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BUSH’S SINKING SHIP
- The US president’s future is endangered by a conservative retreat

Coming back to Washington after a month abroad is like returning to a land which has changed beyond comprehension in so short a time. It is okay once again to poke fun at POTUS, the president of the United States. Talk show hosts like Bill Maher are no longer in danger of their contracts being annulled for openly expressing their thoughts, and veterans of the small screen like Phil Donahue need no longer worry too much about what they say about the war in Iraq lest they are pulled off the air as in February this year. Driving home to the capital from New York’s JFK airport, there was the news on the car radio that the department of homeland security was scrapping a discredited system of registering, fingerprinting, photographing and investigating Muslim men and boys in the United States of America, known by its pompous-sounding official name: the national security entry exit registration system, or NEERS.

Then there were reports that as many as 140 of the 660 detainees who have been held at the US prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would be released, perhaps as early as Christmas. These reports followed an equally unexpected decision by the US Sup- reme Court to hear cases on whether the Guantanamo detainees, who have been in legal limbo since January 2002, are eligible to challenge their incarceration through the American legal system.

Last weekend, George W. Bush withdrew tariffs on steel imported into America in the face of threats by the European Union of imposing retaliatory duties of up to $ 2.2 billion on US products, including oranges from Florida. Florida’s votes in the electoral college may once again decide whether Bush will stay in the White House when his first presidential term expires in a year. Japan had added muscle to the EU threat by announcing its own plans for sanctions of $ 458 million for the first time in the history of US-Japan trade.

But more striking than any of these administrative climbdowns, which have either been formalized or are in the pipeline, has been the state of political discourse in America’s television studios. In a month, conservative panelists and experts on talk-shows have become like balloons which have been pricked. Gone is their arrogance, their righteousness and their impatience, which often translated on TV screens into efforts to silence everyone else with a differing point of view. This unexpected, but welcome, sense of humility is not confined to those who routinely go on TV. When officials of the Bush administration appear in public, it is not difficult to see that for the first time since January 2001, many of them are on the defensive.

The change is not because of Iraq alone. Nor is it a consequence of the pitfalls that lie ahead in the area of the economy. It has come about from a realization that after nearly three years of untiring efforts to wreck international institutions, impose Washington’s ways and will on the rest of the world and replace ideals and principles with a one-point agenda of expediency, the Bush administration finds itself in a cul-de-sac. This has been brought about by a combination of policies pursued by the White House, ranging from the environment and protectionism to defence and ill-conceived efforts to export democracy. Larry Summers, the president of Harvard University, who was Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary, put it succinctly the other day when he spoke at the London School of Economics. The US, Summers said, is “at the zenith of its power but at the nadir of its influence”.

However brave a front they may put up, many members of the Bush administration are reading the writing on the wall. Look at the resignations that are plaguing the administration, notwithstanding the promise of another four-year term in an election, which is yet to throw up a credible rival to the president from the ranks of the Democratic party. In the crucial area of public relations, there have been three high-profile departures from the administration: Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman; Charlotte Beers, the former advertising executive, who was in charge of improving America’s image among Muslims worldwide; and Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon spokeswoman, whose boss, the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was last week “honoured” with a much-publicized “foot in mouth” award.

Did General Tommy Franks, who led the US assault on Iraq as commander of the American army’s central command, know what would be in store for his forces after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein' Franks decided to go at a time when everyone was praising him for the brilliance with which he conducted the successful military assault, which cast aside the Baathist regime in Baghdad and made it history. Indeed, Franks continues to be praised: the latest instalment of praise came last weekend from the former House-of-Representatives speaker and arch-conservative, Newt Gingrich, much to the annoyance of the White House.

A month after Franks announced his plans to quit, General Eric Shinseki, the chief of army staff said he would call it a day. Around the same time, Rumsfeld had forced Thomas White, the army secretary, to quit. The first cabinet-level official to leave the administration was Paul O’Neill, the treasury secretary. Along with him went Larry Lindsey, Bush’s economic adviser. But the haemorrhaging of the Bush economic team did not stop there. Rosario Marin, US treasurer and the highest-ranking Latin American woman in the Bush administration, followed suit. And then Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the White House council of economic advisers, followed by Peter Fisher, the treasury department’s under-secretary for domestic finance, and Mitch Daniels, the White House budget director. It is, of course, well known that Harvey Pitt, chairman of the securities and exchange commission, did not want to go, but was forced out by scandal.

Indeed, there is practically no agency of the US government, which not been racked by resignations. The environment protection agency has been shaken up by departures, starting with its boss, Christine Todd Whitman, a member of the cabinet. The department of justice, the state department, the health and human services department — all have suffered demoralizing personnel loss.

Is it that rats are deserting a sinking ship' In the case of some of those leaving the government, it is a legitimate conclusion to make. But some others have left the administration simply because they feel that the Bush White House has trashed America’s cherished ideals and find it impossible to function in such a set-up.

Unlike the post-war scenario in Iraq, when the White House was caught off-guard, Bush clearly sees the dangers to his future stemming from a conservative retreat and a loss of morale within his administration. So, in a typically political reaction, Bush let it be known last week that in the final year of his first term, he would make an effort to send Americans back to the moon. Obviously, Bush reckons that, like John F. Kennedy’s call in 1962 for launching a sustained lunar initiative, he could now rouse nationalistic and patriotic fervour with a fresh effort to conquer the moon and thus pull up his presidential campaign for a second term by its boot straps.

The irony is that America is approaching record budget deficits and any effort to land man on the moon all over again will cost billions of dollars. And there is no guarantee that such a strategy will yield political results. After all, Indians remember that in May 1998, the government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, tested nuclear weapons, but lost miserably to the Congress in state assembly elections a few months later.

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