Humbled Bush needs to work with Congress

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 February, 2007, 12:00am

After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, Congress gave President George W. Bush a bipartisan blank cheque to hunt down terrorists and deny them sanctuary in Afghanistan. He wasted it by invading Iraq without UN backing or proof that Iraq was arming itself with weapons of mass destruction, and without a post-war exit strategy that would leave Iraq better off.

Nearly four years later, the occupation continues, sectarian warfare has broken out and the toll of civilian and military dead and injured climbs by the hour, without any prospect that Iraq can stand on its own feet. The inevitable judgment of the American electorate came in the November elections that handed control of both houses of Congress to the president's Democratic opponents. It was a signal congress would soon call in Mr Bush's political credit and insist on having some say in the conduct of a war that has become a deeply unpopular drain on America's resources.

As a result, Mr Bush's allies in Congress are trying to head off non-binding but damaging resolutions directly critical of the White House, including rejection of his argument that 20,000 extra troops for Iraq can turn things around.

That does nothing for the president's authority, but it is far from a bad thing. The backlash on Iraq represents a swinging of the pendulum of political power and debate in Washington back towards the middle ground. It remains true that the world will never be the same after 9/11. But the extraordinary emergency triggered by the terrorist attacks, and the need for a decisive response in an undeclared war, has evolved into a drawn-out global 'war on terror'. The president no longer has such a strong case for unprecedented peacetime authority to enable America to strike back at its enemies. He has undermined it with divisive interpretation and exercise of the pre-emptive executive powers conferred on his office - as seen in the detentions without trial, controversial interrogation methods and 'rendition' of prisoners to jurisdictions with poor human-rights records. Critics have pointed out the risk this poses to America's hold on the high moral ground.

Such concerns have long been shared by respected members of both sides of Congress, but they have not been able to persuade the administration to change course. That Congress - which should provide a check on abuses of executive power - is no longer seen as compliant is to be welcomed.

The Bush administration faces two more years of a dirty war in Iraq, unless it can find an honourable way out. The president has to strike a balance between Iraq and issues such as the wider Middle East tensions, the threat of nuclear proliferation by North Korea and Iran, global climate change - and the terrorism threat. Swallowing his pride and rebuilding bridges with a resurgent legislature will give more power to his arm, not less.