Analysis: Bush still trusts his Teflon

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst

WASHINGTON, Jan. 13 (UPI) -- It has been an ironic but probably satisfying few days for President George W. Bush. He has been subjected to a combination punch of what ought to be major embarrassments, yet none of them seem to have cost him any political ground.

On Sunday, the president's own former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, one of the most senior figures to serve in his administration, appeared on CBS's "60 Minutes" to blast Bush as determined to invade Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein from as soon as he entered office, regardless of the lack of evidence that Iraq possessed any weapons of mass destruction.


The administration responded with alacrity. Only a day later it called for a probe into how government documents labeled "secret" could be aired on the O'Neill interview on national network TV in prime time.

But this response contrasted strikingly with the far slower response the White House had in approving a probe on who leaked the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame to columnist Robert Novak last July. The issue flared again last week when Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York claimed the White House had so far only "partially cooperated" with a Justice Department probe into the affair.


The O'Neill embarrassment Sunday was followed the very next day with reports about a major 56-page Army War College study completed last month that scathingly described the invasion and conquest of Iraq as "a strategic error of the first order."

The report, written for the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute in Carlisle, Pa., by veteran defense expert Jeffrey Record, described the three-week campaign in March and April that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein as "an unnecessary preventive war of choice against a deterred Iraq" and said it had only succeeded in creating "a new front in the Middle East for Islamic terrorism and diverted attention and resources away from securing the American homeland against further assault by an undeterrable al-Qaida."

The report came as a godsend to Democratic presidential front-runner Howard Dean, who has been losing ground in polls significantly to former Gen. Wesley Clark over the past week. Dean leapt to the front of the Democratic pack in the spring through his outspoken opposition to and criticism of the war.

Speaking in Burlington, Vt., Tuesday, Dean pointedly remembered, "Leading Democrats -- including many of my opponents in this race -- stood by and in some cases stood with the president as he led us into a war that now even experts at the Army War College call a 'strategic error.' They failed to ask tough questions of the president -- and they never forced a real debate in Washington over the real question of going to war."


It remains to be seen how much the Army War College report will help Dean against the strongly challenging Clark. For Clark has used his own impressive military resume as a base to blast Bush's commitment to the Iraq war and alleged bungling of the war on terror.

Still, however the report plays in the Democratic race, it looks unlikely to seriously embarrass the president. That is because opinion polls continue to indicate a strikingly divided American body politic, with Democrats and liberals ferociously opposed to the president but Republicans and conservatives remaining extremely happy with his performance.

Therefore, while situations like the O'Neill interview, the continuing Plame probe and the Army War College report are certainly embarrassments for the president they remain fleeting ones. Bush continues to out-Teflon Ronald Reagan.

But it may not last forever. U.S. casualties continue to slowly but inexorably mount in Iraq. And there remain the nagging fears that the undeterred guerrillas there may one day score a lucky hit on a packed troop-carrying Chinook helicopter or land a mortar round on a packed U.S. barracks. Also, although the Department of Homeland Security has lowered its terror alert warning from orange to yellow, the lurking menace of another al-Qaida mega-attack on the lines of the "9/11" can never be entirely ruled out.


And even though the U.S. economy is again growing and Wall Street confidently noting rising stock indices, this has not translated into any significant job growth, confounding administration strategists who had been confident that the latest figures would show some. They didn't.

Even the total unity that columnist David Brooks celebrated for the president in a New York Times column Tuesday could still turn against him in a reversal of fortune before November. Many conservatives are uneasy about the war with Iraq and alarmed about the growth of powers given to the federal government under the Patriot Act as well as the administration's big-spending policies, especially over Medicare reform. The president's new immigration reform package that he proposed last week has fueled these fears.

On the other side of the fence, although the Democrats are mauling each other with happy abandon now, if a clear victor emerges from the primary race well before their Boston convention, they could march into the fall presidential campaign united behind Howard Dean or Wesley Clark after all.

The president's Teflon is still looking good. But it is a long way to November. And political Teflon has been known to peel.

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