Bush faces daunting challenges in his lame-duck years

On the agenda: immigration, Social Security, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.

With the contentious elections of 2006 behind him, President Bush must now determine how best to spend his remaining political capital in the final two years of a lame-duck presidency.

His first challenge, after some of the harsh words uttered by both Republicans and Democrats in the political campaign, is to bring a healing touch to the national discourse that must now take place. In foreign affairs, Mr. Bush has seen the value of multilateralism rather than unilateralism. Similarly, in domestic affairs, more can be achieved through unity than discord between the two parties.

At home, some daunting challenges loom. Soon after his reelection, Bush tackled Social Security reform, though there was little political gain to be made by doing so. His first attempt failed, but procrastination will only magnify the problem in years to come. So he must try again with the new Congress.

The same situation prevails with immigration reform. So far, the president has failed to get Congress to pass a comprehensive bill that would both prevent illegal immigrants from crossing US borders and also provide some kind of temporary worker status for the 12 million already in the United States. A first step has been getting congressional and presidential approval for a 700-mile fence along parts of the US-Mexican border, a questionable, and so far unfinanced, project. The president seems determined to achieve a broader solution.

In foreign affairs, Bush's three major challenges – all playing into the war against terrorism– are the continuing turmoil in Iraq, and the drive for nuclear weapons by North Korea and Iran.

In Iraq, the sentencing to death of Saddam Hussein, although celebrated by Shiites and others who felt the brunt of his tyrannical rule, may not in itself bring closure. Iraqi politicians have so far been unable to put intraparty feuding and warfare between private militias to rest.

With the midterm elections behind it, the Bush administration is expected to do some fine-tuning and tweaking to its military tactics in Iraq. But within the political framework that the US has helped provide for the sprouting of democracy's shoots in Iraq, there must be more tangible proof of growth.

In facing the problems arising from North Korea's and Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, the Bush administration seeks the cooperation of two former communist adversaries from the cold-war era – China and Russia.

In the attempt to dissuade North Korea from further manufacture of nuclear bombs, the US has enlisted the aid of China, to which Pyongyang is indebted for essential imports of oil (about 12,000 barrels a day) and food. Though China has been circumspect about it, Beijing apparently reduced its oil shipments to North Korea in recent weeks. This move may have been instrumental in persuading the Pyongyang regime to return to aborted six-party talks on its nuclear program.

China is in the midst of extraordinary economic growth, and is intent on claiming a major place for itself in international affairs, becoming a major player in Africa and Latin America, for instance. It does not want instability on its own Asian doorstep and was apparently angered by North Korea's testing of a nuclear bomb last month. The communist regime fears that some countries in the region – particu- larly Taiwan – might feel obliged to counter the North Korean threat by building nuclear weapons themselves.

Where Iran is concerned, the most useful ally that the US could ask to influence the Tehran regime is Russia. Moscow has developed a lucrative business relationship with Iran. Trade between the two amounts to more than $2 billion a year. Russia supplies the bulk of Iran's conventional arms and built its $8 billion light-water nuclear power plant at Bushehr.

The problem with trying to enlist Russia to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions is that Russia enjoys having a foothold in the Middle East and is in no particular mood to do favors for the US. Russian President Vladimir Putin, the old KGB operative, has been taking Russia on a repressive internal tack that concerns the US, causing a prickly relationship between the two countries. This was particularly evident last month when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Moscow. She deplored a Russian crackdown on press freedom and pointedly paid tribute to Anna Politkovskaya, an outspoken journalistic critic of the Putin government, who was murdered this fall by an unknown assassin.

As the Bush administration ponders the impact of the midterm elections in the US, it cannot allow such problems as outlined here to fester.

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

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