Congress's Gift to Bush

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, October 2, 2008; 11:41 AM

If you're the Democratic Congress, what do you give the enormously unpopular lame-duck Republican president in the midst of a massive financial crisis? How about a big wet kiss and a long-sought foreign policy victory?

Obscured by yesterday's Senate action on the financial bailout (also a big win for the White House) was a historic vote in favor of President Bush's highly controversial civil nuclear agreement with India.

This is definitely one for the history books, although the big question is whether history will record the new agreement as a pivotal step in strengthening an important strategic alliance -- or as a tragic move undermining decades of nuclear non-proliferation efforts and launching a massive nuclear arms race. The latter seems more likely.

Forging closer relations between the U.S. and India, the world's largest democracy, is a no-brainer. But the problem is that in this particular agreement, Bush basically gave away the store.

It's not just that the agreement rewards India for its decision to defy international pressure and develop its own nuclear weapons. It's that Bush directed his negotiators to give in to India's demands that it be allowed to produce unlimited quantities of fissile material and amass as many nuclear weapons as it wants. (See my March 3, 2006, column, Did Bush Blink?)

Former President Jimmy Carter wrote at the time in a Washington Post op-ed: "The proposed nuclear deal with India is just one more step in opening a Pandora's box of nuclear proliferation."

The New York Times editorial board wrote earlier this month, after the House voted for the agreement: "President Bush has failed to achieve so many of his foreign policy goals, but last weekend he proved that he can still get what he really wants. The administration bullied and wheedled international approval of the president's ill-conceived nuclear deal with India."

As Stephen Cohen wrote for NiemanWatchdog.org in 2005, creating a strategic alliance with India, potentially as a bullwark against China, was Bush's "one big idea' regarding foreign policy before he even took office.

Yesterday, Bush celebrated with a statement: "This legislation will strengthen our global nuclear nonproliferation efforts, protect the environment, create jobs, and assist India in meeting its growing energy needs in a responsible manner.

"I look forward to signing this bill into law and continuing to strengthen the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership."

The Coverage

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "The Senate last night approved a historic agreement that opens up nuclear trade with India for the first time since New Delhi conducted a nuclear test three decades ago, giving the Bush administration a significant foreign policy achievement in its final months.

"The bill, which passed 86 to 13, goes to President Bush for his signature, handing the chief executive a rare victory that both advocates and foes say will reverberate for decades. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who conceived of the deal, have pushed hard for it from the earliest weeks of the president's second term.

"The agreement, which sparked fierce opposition from nuclear proliferation experts, acknowledges India as a de facto nuclear power, even though it has never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. India until now has been barred from worldwide nuclear trade, leaving its homegrown industry hobbled and short of uranium fuel to run its reactors. . . .

"Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, blasted the deal as a 'nonproliferation disaster.' India, along with Pakistan and Israel, has never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. India conducted nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998, despite international outrage, and continues to produce fissile material. Kimball said the deal 'does not bring India into the nonproliferation mainstream' because it 'creates a country-specific exemption from core nonproliferation standards that the United States has spent decades to establish.'"

Foster Klug writes for the Associated Press: "Congressional approval caps an aggressive three-year diplomatic and political push by the Bush administration, which portrays the pact as the cornerstone of new ties with a democratic Asian power that long has maintained what administration officials consider a responsible nuclear program. Administration officials also have championed the opportunities for U.S. companies to do business in India's multibillion-dollar nuclear market. . . .

"Opponents say lawmakers, eager to leave Washington to campaign for the November elections, rushed consideration of a complicated deal that they said could spark a nuclear arms race in Asia. The extra fuel the measure provides, they say, could boost India's nuclear bomb stockpile by freeing up its domestic fuel for weapons.

Peter Baker writes in the New York Times: "The Senate ratified the deal 86 to 13 a week after the House passed it, handing a rare foreign policy victory to President Bush in the twilight of his administration and culminating a three-year debate that raised alarms about a new arms race and nearly toppled the government of India.

"The agreement, in the view of its authors, will redefine relations between two countries often at odds during the cold war and build up India as a friendly counterweight to a rising China. But critics complain that it effectively scraps longstanding policies designed to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and that it could encourage nations like Pakistan, Iran and North Korea to accelerate their own programs outside international legal structures. . . .

"Mr. Bush has been pursuing the agreement since 2005 and his advisers have called closer relations between the United States and India a key part of his foreign policy legacy. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, visiting Mr. Bush at the White House last week, endorsed that view. 'When history is written,' he said, 'I think it will be recorded that President George W. Bush made an historic goal in bringing our two democracies closer to each other.' . . .

"Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a research organization in Washington, called the promise of big dollars and American jobs 'pure fantasy' and predicted that the United States would regret further opening the nuclear door.

"'There will be a reckoning for this agreement,' he said. 'You can argue till you're blue in the face that India is a special case. But what happens in one country affects what happens in others.'"

Who Saw This Coming?

Like clockwork, as the Associated Press reports: "Pakistan demanded the United States give it civilian nuclear technology on Thursday, after American lawmakers voted to overturn a three decade-ban on atomic trade with rival India.

"Pakistan, which like India has a nuclear arsenal, has long opposed efforts by U.S. President George W. Bush to push through the deal, which opponents say could risk an atomic arms race in Asia.

"'Now Pakistan also has the right to demand a civilian nuclear agreement with America,' Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told reporters. 'We want there to be no discrimination. Pakistan will also strive for a nuclear deal and we think they will have to accommodate us.'"

Poll Watch

The newest CBS News poll finds: "President Bush's overall job approval rating has dropped five points from last week and is now the lowest of his presidency. Only 22% of Americans approve of the job he's doing -- a new low -- while 70% of Americans disapprove -- a new high. President Bush's job approval rating has dropped 68 points from his all time high of 90% back in October, 2001. . . .

"Just 18% of Americans approve of the way President Bush is handling the economy, while 77% of Americans disapprove. Even a majority of Republicans disapprove of the President's handling of this issue."

Massimo Calabresi reports that in the latest Time poll, Bush's "approval rating is 23%, the lowest number ever found by Abt/SRBI, the company that conducted the poll for Time; 73% of respondents disapprove of his performance as President. Only 26% approve of his handling of the current financial crisis."

Gee, those numbers make the 26 percent approval rating in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll that I wrote about yesterday look pretty good.

New Strategy Paying Off?

James Gerstenzang blogged for the Los Angeles Times yesterday: "It is midafternoon on the first day of the month that ends at Halloween -- and we haven't heard a fear-inspiring economic horror story from President Bush or his senior aides all day.

"That's some kind of recent record. . . .

"Bush had lunch with Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Fed. There were no photo ops, no stepping out of the Oval Office to deliver tough declarations of impending doom with stern advisors at his side."

And then later that night, the Senate passed the bailout.

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "A lame duck in a financial downpour, President Bush called senators ahead of Wednesday's big vote on the financial rescue plan. The measure passed, but not just because of the president's intervention. He wields dwindling overall influence.

"The dimming of his clout is part of the price the president is paying for a general loss of confidence in the administration's ability to deliver -- from misleading Congress on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and its fumbled handling of Hurricane Katrina to suggestions that it was asleep at the switch on Wall Street regulation. . . .

"'He talked about how he was going to sprint to the end. But he's sprinting through knee-deep mud,' said Fred Greenstein, a political scientist at Princeton University and author of books on the presidency. 'He is one of the lamest of lame-duck presidents.'"

Justice Watch

Zachary Roth, writing for TPM Muckraker, reviews all the evidence in this week's Justice Department report indicating that the White House was behind the firing of U.S. attorneys for political reasons.

Attorney General Michael Mukasey responded to the report by appointing Nora R. Dannehy, a career prosecutor currently acting as U.S. attorney in Connecticut, to oversee a criminal probe. (See my Monday column, Pointing the Finger at the White House.)

Matthew Blake writes for the Washington Independent on the uncertainty about what the new prosecutor will be allowed to do. "Dannehy, for example, could receive broad authority to press criminal charges. Or she might have the same power as the congressional investigators, who futilely sought testimony from Rove and Miers.

"'It is not clear that she will be authorized to subpoena White House officials,' Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, (D-R.I.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said at a news conference. 'The appointment raises a whole new set of questions.'

"The legal authority of any special prosecutor is up to the attorney general. When Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft told Patrick Fitzgerald in 2003 to look at the White House's role in the disclosure of the identity of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame, Fitzgerald got wide latitude to subpoena Bush administration officials. But he had to turn all transcribed interviews over to the Justice Dept. -- which has selectively disclosed their contents.

"Mukasey did not announce what powers he gave Dannehy, and the Justice Dept. declined to provide the terms of her appointment. Peter Carr, a department spokesman, did say that Dannehy would report to Mark Filip, the deputy attorney general."

Addington Watch

The advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington announces: "Last week, the judge in CREW's lawsuit against Vice President Dick Cheney approved our request to take the depositions of David Addington, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff." The deposition was to be about record-preserving practices in the vice president's office.

"On the eve of that deposition, Vice President Cheney and the other defendants filed an emergency petition for a writ of mandamus with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

"Mandamus is an extraordinary remedy and defendants seek it here to have the D.C. Circuit intrude directly into the district court litigation by demanding that the district court judge vacate her discovery orders. The petition is based on a claim that the discovery authorized by the district court raises serious separation of powers concerns merely because the deponent is David Addington."

Afghanistan Watch

Nancy A. Youssef writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan warned Wednesday that the situation there could worsen there before it improves and urgently called for more troops, civilian advisors and equipment. 'We're in a very tough fight,' said Gen. David McKiernan. 'The idea that it might get worse before it gets better is certainly a possibility.'

"McKiernan spoke amid growing worries among Pentagon officials about how the U.S. military can sustain troop levels in Iraq and also address the worsening violence in Afghanistan. While violence has dropped significantly in Iraq this year, it's risen by roughly 30 percent in Afghanistan, and U.S. troop deaths in Afghanistan now surpass the monthly toll in Iraq.

"Afghanistan has had a far lower priority in troops and funds than Iraq has, and it's frequently referred to as an 'economy of force' operation, one that requires a minimal number of troops. But top Pentagon officials say it can't be run that way any longer, and the military has recently begun to re-examine its Afghan strategy."

Lolita C. Baldor writes for the Associated Press: "After an Oval Office briefing from McKiernan, President Bush said Afghanistan is 'a situation where there's been progress and there are difficulties.'"

Bush Legacy Watch

Timothy Egan blogs for the New York Times: "It would have been nice to let Bush's two terms marinate a while before invoking Herbert Hoover and James Buchanan from the cellar of worst presidents. But then -- over the last two weeks -- he completed the trilogy of national disasters that will be with us for a generation or more.

"George Bush entered the White House as a proponent of a more humble foreign policy and a believer that government should get out of the way at home. He leaves as someone with a trillion-dollar war aimed at making people who've hated each other for a thousand years become Rotary Club freedom-lovers, and his own country close to bankruptcy after government did get out of the way.

"It's a Mount Rainier of shame and folly. . . .

"Historians will recall that in each of the major disasters on Bush's watch, there were ample warnings -- from the intelligence briefing that Osama bin Laden was determined to strike a month before the lethal blow, to the projections that Hurricane Katrina could drown a major American city, to the expressed fears that letting Wall Street regulate itself could be catastrophic. . . .

"It's painful now to realize, just as the economy craters and the world looks aghast at the United States, that the other cancer from the Bush presidency -- his failure to even start the nation on the road to a new energy economy -- gets short-changed during the triage of his final days."

Froomkin Watch

I am taking tomorrow off (childcare issues). The column will resume on Monday.

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on political climate change, Bruce Beattie on Bush's will, and Sean Leahy on Bush with his pants down.

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