Bush Slides and the World Shudders

President George W. Bush’s unpopularity has created a major political crisis in the nation’s capital that is causing worldwide concern.

He-who-would not-listen-but-was-willing-to-take-big-chances has seen his worst nightmare turn into reality; he is suffering the humiliation of learning his critics have been wiser than he. Iraq can’t be evacuated until the question of its domination by Iran is settled.

Like Jimmy Carter after the Iranian student takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran, and Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon with Vietnam, Bush joins the list of presidents whose administrations were wrecked by foreign policy mishaps. The president’s poor poll showings have made it hard for him to control the pace of events. Anxiety is growing because his term doesn’t expire until January 2009—a long time for a nation to be without a functioning leader.

Undocumented immigration has gripped Congress and become a national obsession; it also illustrates the president’s weakness. The timing of the current debate is having an effect on the other side of the Rio Grand. Mexico is in the middle of its presidential election campaign. Calling out the National Guard and proposals by some Republican for a border fence are playing poorly there. Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist who pledges to boost government spending to help the poor and is critical of the U.S., now seems to be lagging Felipe Calderon, the former energy minister from the right who is friendly to the U.S. and promises to keep spending in check. The U.S. debate on immigration could still be a boon to the left-leaning candidate and put U.S. interests at risk as the Mexicans go to the polls on July 2.

A win by Lopez Obrador would follow a recent pattern in Latin America, where winners on the left have favored using the high price of petroleum to finance social programs—most prominently Evo Morales in Bolivia and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela have taken this path.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, any solution seems to depend on reaching an accord with Iran, an exceedingly difficult task given the militant religious beliefs of its ruling coalition. There was general consternation among foreign policy mavens when the U.S. could not devise a constructive response to the recent letter sent by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

As The New Yorker points out in this week’s issue, the letter reflects curiosity by a leader who knows little about American policy makers. His militancy is precisely what makes it possible for him to reach out to the U.S. without facing a backlash from religious militants that he is selling out to the Great Satan. But the U.S. refused to budge and rejected the first direct approach by an Iranian leader to a U.S. president in more than 25 years. Even Henry Kissinger was aghast at this missed opportunity.

All of these developments have led observers all over the world are wondering if the United States has a functioning leadership—and the biggest crisis for Bush may have just erupted. The weekend search of the offices of Louisiana Democratic Congressman William J. Jefferson office in the Rayburn Office Building has unleashed harsh criticism from both parties on Capitol Hill. At issue is the “speech or debate” clause of the Constitution intended to shield lawmakers from intimidation by the Executive Branch. Jefferson, who reportedly hid marked bills from an FBI sting hidden in his freezer, is an unlikely figure to rally around, but the news of FBI agents rummaging through a congressman’s official papers has alarmed even the Republicans. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich put the issue in its starkest terms, calling the search the “edge of a constitutional confrontation,” and “the most blatant violation of the constitutional separation of powers in my lifetime.” He urged Bush to discipline or fire “whoever exhibited this extraordinary violation,” a test the president failed in the Valerie Plame controversy. This incident could blossom into a full-blown constitutional crisis.

The Republicans—thankfully without noticeable success—are trying to turn the president’s crisis to their partisan advantage by claiming a Democratic Congress would impeach the president. But there is not even the remotest chance of that under any current election scenario—Bush’s impeachment would make Dick Cheney president.

Current, however, is the key word. Rumors are flying in Washington that Karl Rove, the president’s notorious political adviser, is being pressured to provide evidence against Cheney. It is possible that he masterminded the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plume, and has legal liability. There may be fact behind these rumors or they could be a not so subtle shove aimed at moving Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald’s investigation in that direction.

By way of a reminder, this turn of events is not unprecedented. Before Richard Nixon was forced to resign, Vice President Spiro Agnew had to be forced out. One trivial detail places Agnew in context. While governor of Maryland, he received free groceries from a supermarket chain. After assuming office, he was upset that the deliveries had stopped and the Vice-President without ever recognizing that this petty graft would be totally embarrassing once it became public insisted that the free groceries continue. Agnew was a hapless figure, while Cheney plays a major role in setting Administration policy, but before the Nation can deal with Bush’s inadequacies, it must confront the Vice-President.

The rumor about Cheney’s possible legal troubles more vividly than most anecdotes reveals the political crisis engulfing Washington.