Tough days ahead for Bush, but how will history rate him?

After President Bush has left office and historians start to chronicle his legacy, Friday, Oct. 28, 2005, may turn out to have far less significance than Thursday, Dec. 15, 2005.

Friday, Oct. 28 was a sort of "black Friday" for Mr. Bush, in which he endured the indictment of a senior aide, I. Lewis Libby Jr., following a string of presidential problems that have eroded public support for the president.

But Thursday, Dec. 15 is the day when Iraqis choose a new parliament to serve for the next four years. If Iraqis, who have exhibited great courage in braving death threats from terrorists to take fledgling steps toward democracy and vote in earlier elections, pull this big one off successfully, it will do two things.

First, it will send a momentous signal throughout the Arab world and accelerate a movement toward freedom that is already stirring in countries like Kuwait, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and even Syria.

Second, it would set the scene for carefully and cautiously beginning the withdrawal of some American troops.

It's a tenet of presidential politics that public opinion is formed on the basis of how a president manages domestic policy. There is supposed to be no political traction in foreign policy. But history is far more likely to measure this president on his conduct of foreign, not domestic, policy. For what happens in Iraq will likely be the tipping point that will determine whether the Arab region moves away from backwardness and suppression or remains bitterly aloof from the changing world at large. If Iraq triggers momentum in a positive direction in the Middle East, Mr. Bush must be given credit for a significant supporting role.

None of this speculation is intended to diminish the problems that face him at home. One must wonder who the White House staffers were who did not immediately perceive the enormity of damage from hurricane Katrina and urge the president to act with more urgency than he did. Similarly, where were the staffers who miscalculated the opposition to Harriet Miers as a Supreme Court judge and let the president go down that dead-end road?

Meantime, with the political capital from his reelection eroding as a result of such gaffes, Bush may face a tough battle in getting his new nominee, Samuel Alito, appointed to the Supreme Court, and in achieving any victories on such issues as Social Security and income-tax reform.

His key political adviser, Karl Rove, will for the moment be on hand, having evaded indictment similar to that which caused the resignation of Mr. Libby. However, Mr. Rove would hardly be human if he were not distracted by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's indication that his involvement in the Valerie Plame case is still being investigated.

In any event, the departure of Libby, who was both chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, and a senior adviser to the president, may hobble Mr. Cheney's immediate usefulness to the president because Cheney himself is caught up in the Valerie Plame story and may be in court explaining whatever role he did, or did not, play in that saga.

As of now, the White House is denying speculation about a White House staff shake-up. But the ground around the president is shifting. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who presided over a brilliant military operation in Iraq but for whom the postwar occupation has been horrible, is far less evident than he once was. Cheney may be less forceful and influential as he deals with fallout from the Plame case. With these two conservative stalwarts wounded, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is a star in the Bush cabinet, with easy access to the president; and, at least in the foreign policy area, she may be the president's principal adviser.

It is a strength of the American system that Libby must be held innocent until proven guilty. Nevertheless, the day of his indictment was a dismal one for the president: He had one senior White House official indicted on serious charges, and another (Rove) told that he is still under investigation. But Bush, the cornerstone of whose foreign policy is the spread of democracy, paid tribute to the qualities and methods of the special prosecutor.

In announcing Libby's indictment, Mr. Fitzgerald said: "The law applies to everybody." Even to those in high places in the White House. That, for all the world to see, is democracy in action.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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