By Jim Hoagland
WASHINGTON -- Laugh or cry? Hard to choose when it comes to the descent of the Bush White House into total incoherence over the Dubai Ports World contract. Once again we turn from weighty matters to ask: What did this president not know and when did he not know it?
From his vice president spraying a hunting buddy with birdshot to the negotiation of the politically charged ports contract, George W. Bush has had his spokesman fall back on his fathers lame defense in Iran-contra: Me? I was out of the loop.
Thats not a defense, Mr. President. That is confirmation of our worst fears --especially when that declaration of prior ignorance follows an immediate, defiant threat to exercise the first-ever Bush 43 veto. Thats shooting yourself in both feet.
That is not to say that Bush should have been following the ins and outs of a commercially sound, if difficult to explain, contract. Nor does it absolve opportunistic politicians in both parties who are exploiting this flap by playing on racial animosities and fears. They toy with U.S. foreign policy and domestic accord.
But where was White House chief of staff Andrew Card as the ports contract moved through the bureaucracy? Or Karl Rove, who is paid to be Bushs political early warning system? From Katrina on, they have let Bush down. No, lets be more precise: They have melted the Bush presidency down to a nub.
This incredibly sustained oblivious staff work -- and Bushs incredibly sustained enabling of it -- carries a high price, for Bush and the nation.
The president embarks this week on a journey to India that should be a foreign policy high point for his second term. The visit has been meticulously and imaginatively prepared. Instead, it may well be eclipsed in national attention by the guffaws, sneers and blatant disrespect this White House has both allowed and encouraged to flourish with its bumbling responses to controversies big and small.
Pursuing an idea I heard him discuss before he ever went to the White House, Bush has worked steadily to construct a strategic partnership with the worlds largest democracy. His journey to India, and an obligatory stopover in Pakistan, will give substance to this administrations innovative foreign policy doctrine for working with other powers.
I think of it as the Rice Doctrine, since the secretary of state has stated it most clearly: The fundamental character of regimes matters more today than the international distribution of power. Only democracy assures lasting peace and security between states, because it is the only guarantee of freedom and justice within states, she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed article on Dec. 11.
This idea underlies the U.S.-India agreement on civilian nuclear power that Bush hopes to make final with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi and then sell to Congress and the international Nuclear Suppliers Group.
The agreement is the first important, realistic reshaping of the global rules of the proliferation of nuclear technology in decades. It puts flesh on the bones of the Rice Doctrine: Washington is now prepared to provide civilian nuclear supplies to democratic India, which has been scrupulous in controlling its technology and equipment, but not to Pakistan, a notorious proliferator of both.
This echoes American willingness to tolerate Israels undeclared nuclear arsenal while opposing Irans desire to acquire one. Bush and Rice explicitly say that it is not the nature of the arms a government has, but the nature of the government that has the arms that will determine its standing in Washington.
Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns has conducted nearly a dozen high-level negotiating sessions and seems to have moved Indias nuclear establishment to the edge of accepting the agreements opening up of the nations reactors to partial international inspection. Burns flew to New Delhi late last week to overcome last obstacles to the deal.
Today we have zero impact on Indias nuclear facilities. We have very little impact on its long-range development of energy supplies. This agreement could change that and much more, Burns told me before leaving for India.
This is creative diplomacy that springs from a big idea that Bush has nurtured. Reducing Indias reliance on fossil fuels addresses global climate change concerns. It helps give India alternatives to financing oil pipelines from Iran.
This should be a week of foreign policy high fives or even hosannas for Bush. Instead he is likely to be slipping and sliding on the banana peels his chief White House aides leave strewn in his path. Thats reason enough to cry over Dubai.
2006, Washington Post Writers Group