Posted on December 22, 2003 in Washington Watch

The events of last week: the capture of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a controversial speech by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and key decisions by U.S. Courts of Appeal have set the stage for developments that will shape the politics of 2004.

The capture of the Iraqi leader, as might have been expected, drew significant attention from the U.S. media. It was a much-needed breakthrough for the President whose public approval ratings were in a downward slump. No weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, the costs of the war had already exceeded $166 billion, and the daily death toll of U.S. soldiers had combined to have a negative impact on public opinion. Support for the war was down, as was confidence in the Administration’s ability to conduct the war. With the capture of Saddam Hussein, it appeared that some Americans were willing to forget their concerns about the war. The President received somewhat of a bump in the polls, though not as substantial a rise as he might have hoped for and as many pundits had predicted.

At week’s end, polls showed the President still tied in a contest with “any Democrat”. And his approval rating, while up, was still in the mid 50% range. In fact, it appears that the only major impact that the capture of the Iraqi leader has had was on the debate among the Democratic candidates who are challenging George Bush for the presidency. The members of Congress who voted for the war, but who had in recent months turned into critics of the Administration’s handling of the war, found their hawkish wings once again. They took this opportunity to turn their criticism against Howard Dean, not only for his consistent opposition to the war, but also for his post-capture observation. Dean, who praised the American military for their effort and noted that the capture was a welcome development for the Iraqi people, commented that while the arrest of Saddam may increase the safety of U.S. troops in Iraq, it does not contribute to making the U.S. homeland any safer. For his remarks, Dean faced a torrent of criticism, not only from the Administration, but from his fellow Democrats who argued that he had proven that he lacked the foreign policy “toughness” needed to run for President.

In doing so, Dean’s opponents may have made a tactical error. A closer look at U.S. polling shows that while the President’s favorable ratings may have gone up a bit, the horse-race contest between Bush and the Democrats remains virtually unchanged. There is a significant divergence of opinion between the two parties in regard to their attitudes, both toward Bush and the war. Republicans support the President, Democrats do not. Republicans largely support the war and Democrats largely remain opposed to it. So the criticism by Dean’s opponents, because of his consistent opposition to the war, only enhances his credentials among his fellow Democrats. As a result, polls at the end of the week show Dean’s standing among Democrats has not only not declined, but has increased in several states.

All of this will, no doubt, continue to play out in the weeks to come. Only if the U.S. military makes real progress on the ground in stemming the American death toll, will there be a significant swing among Democrats who will otherwise continue to oppose the war and, who will therefore, support candidates who share their view.

On the Israeli-Palestinian front, peace efforts were dealt yet another blow by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s speech last week. In it he announced his intentions to take unilateral steps that would, in effect, redraw the Middle East border. Sharon said he would do so if Palestinians do not, in a short period of time, take, what the Prime Minster defined, as “required steps” toward peace.

In his speech, Sharon committed himself yet again to supporting President Bush’s Road Map and to taking the steps he is required to take and to which he had committed himself months ago. Observers saw Sharon’s speech as a carefully developed public relations effort to take the heat off his administration. He had been under attack in the United States for his plans to continue building a West Bank Wall, expanding Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, not acting on his commitment to dismantle settlements as called for in the Road Map and not advancing measures to improve the daily lives of Palestinians. In Israel, Sharon was coming under increased pressure from peace activists and members of his own Likud movement who had created public pressure for Israel to “separate” from the Palestinians and achieve a peace arrangement. With his speech, Sharon found a way to deflect the criticism while continuing on his current course. He will continue to build the West Bank Wall (which in effect is redrawing the map of the territories) and expand settlements, all the while professing a commitment to a vision of peace.

In the short run, it may work, at least here in the United States. The initial response of the Administration was only mildly critical. While acknowledging the Israeli Prime Minister’s commitment to the Road Map, the State Department criticized the Israeli Prime Minister’s intention to take unilateral steps that could pre-judge the outcome of a final peace. That criticism was immediately undercut by an “unnamed senior White House official” who pronounced the speech to be positive. Given the normal course of U.S. politics, this U.S. reaction may temporarily take the heat off of the Israeli government and take the Israeli-Palestinian issue off the table giving Sharon a freer hand for the time being.

Recent court decisions regarding the Administration’s detainees, however, may have the most pronounced impact on the policy debate by sharpening the contradiction between Democrats and Republicans during the coming year.

In three separate cases, U.S. Courts of Appeals have ruled against the Bush Administration charging that the President exceeded his authority and violated the constitutionally protected rights of individuals, both citizens and foreign nationals in the United States. The courts argued that absent congressional approval, the President does not have the right to declare American citizens, or foreigners in the U.S., as “enemy combatants” and hold them for prolonged periods without charge or the opportunity to defend themselves.

In an additional opinion, a court ruled that the Administration had used too broad a definition of “support for terrorism” by arresting individuals on what the court ruled was a vaguely construed and unconstitutional law passed by Congress in 1996. Both of these decisions will not only continue their way through the courts but will also be the matter of great debate between supporters and opponents of the Administration’s war on terrorism.

Finally, tapes were released late last week showing detainees, arrested in the massive post-9/11 sweep, being brutally abused by prison officers. This too will serve to sharpen criticism of the way the Department of Justice has behaved in the post-9/11 period.

All in all, it was an event-filled week at the end of 2003, which will contribute significantly to defining the issues that Americans will have to debate and on which they will have to make critical decisions in 2004.

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