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The Bush Inheritance: Iraq, Iran and Putin

President Bush at yesterday's press conference

The candidates running for president could take solace from at least one thing that President Bush said at his White House news conference yesterday: He definitely does plan to step down in January 2009. The trick? He plans to leave his successor Vladimir Putin to deal with.

Bush was kidding around when he said that, unlike Putin, he has definitely decided to leave office when his term expires. But it came during an interesting exchange about what would happen if Putin decides not to give up his monopoly on power in Russia next year when his final constitutional term ends. Putin said recently that he may become prime minister instead, in effect keeping his tight grip on his reemerging country.

How the next president would deal with Putin would be an interesting question. Bush, at least, has the benefit of a seemingly decent personal relationship with the Russian leader that may at least somewhat temper Putin's anti-American and anti-democratic instincts. The next president will come into office with no rapport with Putin and almost surely will emerge from the campaign having trashed Bush for being too soft on the Kremlin leader.

Just this week, for instance, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) chastised Bush for coddling Putin. Unlike the president, McCain said, "I looked into Putin's eyes and I saw three letters -- a K, a G and a B." He told the Republican Jewish Coalition that he would never have invited Putin to Kennebunkport, Maine, as Bush did, and he said "it's time we got a little tough with Mr. Putin." At the same forum, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) listed Putin along with rogue leaders such as Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, making clear what category he places the Russian leader. On the Democratic side, former senator John Edwards (N.C.) recently co-chaired a task force that chided Bush for his handling of Russia.

The Putin factor raises a broader question. What problems will Bush bequeath his successor? Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press recently wrote an insightful piece noting that Bush has long vowed not to pass on problems to future presidents if he could help it, and yet will end up doing just that. He almost certainly will turn over to his successor an Iraq with at least 100,000 U.S. troops still there. He will hand over a national debt exceeding $6 trillion, entitlement programs that are heading for fiscal trouble, a health care system that does not cover 47 million Americans, an energy crisis with oil probably still over $70 or $80 a barrel and an immigration system that virtually everyone considers broken even if they disagree about how to fix it.

On the other hand, Bush has been trying to take some things off the table by finding ways to institutionalize some of his counterterrorism strategies that have proved controversial. He has already signed legislation governing treatment of detainees and appears on the road to pushing through a compromise on warrantless surveillance that would mean the next president might not have to confront the question. He has said he hoped to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and find another way to deal with terrorism suspects, but that looks less likely to happen by the time he leaves office.

Perhaps most daunting problem Bush may hand his successor would be Iran. Bush finally seems on track to resolving the standoff with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program as the Stalinist regime so far has been fulfilling its agreement to begin dismantling its program. But the president has made no discernible progress in forcing Iran to give up its uranium enrichment program and it looks unlikely at the moment that he can muster enough international will to impose the tougher sanctions that he is seeking.

Bush was practically apocalyptic in his description yesterday of what would happen should Tehran succeed in obtaining a nuclear bomb. "If you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from [having] the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon," he told reporters. That sort of talk has led to sometimes feverish speculation that Bush would not leave office unless he has dealt definitively with the problem, even if it means using military force. In reality, Bush does not appear anywhere near such a decision at the moment, but what about a year from now if the Iranians have demonstrated even further progress toward enriching weapons-grade uranium?

His potential Republican successors made clear this week that they would not hesitate to order an attack if necessary and, if anything, seemed to be jockeying over who would be toughest on Iran. During the Republican Jewish Coalition forum, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said it was "absolutely necessary that we're clear the military option is not off the table" when it comes to Iran. "We've seen what Iran will do with ordinary weapons he told the group during a meeting in Washington. "If I am president of the United States, I guarantee you we will never find out what they will do if they get nuclear weapons because they're not going to get nuclear weapons."

McCain, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson likewise rattled sabers at the event. "The U.S. must make it clear we will not allow Iran to become a nuclear threat," Thompson said. "The military option must never be off the table." Romney said the question confronting presidential candidates would be: "Will you act to stop a nuclear Iran? Let me assure you of one thing -- I will." He added: "Iran has to understand that not only is the military on the table, it is in our hand." The next president, he said, must make clear that "this is not just some far-flung idea that we might act militarily, but instead we are poised and ready to act." Romney made no mention of consulting with lawyers first, as he did during the most recent Republican debate.

McCain, at least, held out hope that it will not come to military force. "I keep praying every night that we will avoid a conflict with Iran," he told the Associated Press. "I don't think it's inevitable that we're in a conflict with Iran. But I certainly see it as one scenario that could -- and I emphasize could -- take place if we are not effective" using diplomacy and sanctions. "I still say there's only one thing worse than military action against Iran and that is a nuclear-armed Iran."

The open question is whether John McCain or any other would-be president will have to confront that choice -- with or without Vladimir Putin's support.

-- Peter Baker

Posted at 9:55 AM ET on Oct 18, 2007  | Category:  Morning Cheat Sheet
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It's almost impossible to believe that this drug addicted coward -- a deserter during Vietnam -- ever became president. To see all the destruction he has caused, all the death, the carnage and harm, is to realize just how sick our society has become. He must, he simply must be impeached for his treason, and given the old Saddamite rope around his neck. Shame on him and shame on all the disgusting vermin that voted for that girlish little crazy person. May he and every America-hating Republican rot in hell.

Posted by: Nurse_Tabby | October 18, 2007 1:41 PM

Doesn't matter what Bush leaves. It'll proably be a Democratic successor who will screw everything up anyway. Despite what the whiners here say overall the economy is healthy and doing well. Doesn't mean that everyone everywhere is doing well but I think the Libs are putting out so much scary talk that it's causing people to worry when they don't have too. And anyway, what's the BFD on 47 million being without health insurance? That means that 253 million have it. There's always going to be some people somewhere that are having a tough time of it.

Posted by: ronjaboy | October 18, 2007 1:32 PM

Bush's successor will also, take over (1) A New Orleans still not properly recovered from the levee disaster, (2) The largest national debt ever known, (3) alienated allies all over the world, (4) a splintered and divided national approach to immigration, a Veteran's Administration bursting at the seems as well as most other federal agencies' missions put so far out of reach by incompetent and corrupt political appointees, (5) A DHS that was never planned correctly and most likely will have to be sorted out back into its original missions and pieces, (6) I can't type fast enough to keep up with the damage this administration will continue to do to America in the remaining 15 months. Good luck to the next prez.

Posted by: free-donny | October 18, 2007 1:26 PM

I hope that McCain prays to another God and gets different answers than George W.--otherwise Iran will be the next stop and who knows what else.
As far as what Bush will stick his/her successor with: Iraq, Iran, Russia, China, Turkey, the Israeli-Palestinian problems,and, and...
As he has started his sprint to the finish line, it seems that Mr. Bush tries hard to stir anti-American sentiments wherever he can.

Posted by: bn1123 | October 18, 2007 1:00 PM

"His potential Republican successors..."

Bush's potential Republican successors? There are none. It's a historical fact that deeply unpopular presidents of one party are followed by presidents of the other party.
How preposterous to pretend that Bush, who's approval ratings are currently between 29% and 32%, is going to be followed by another Republican. The country is sick of George Bush and wants him gone... no way we vote another Republican in to follow him as president. Get real.

Posted by: errinfamilia | October 18, 2007 1:00 PM

Bush's worst and most damaging legacy is having created millions of voters who feel they have the right and the power to disbelieve any fact they don't like. We once had "Know Nothings;" thanks to W., we now have "Non-Empiricists" who think the world is 6000 years old, that deficits don't matter, and that science and politics are the same thing. In effect he has created a personal party based on insanity.

Posted by: dfc102 | October 18, 2007 12:40 PM

Iran, the new bad guy on the block, has just made a deal with Iraq to supply them with a power plant. This is while Bush is talking Iraq good/Iran bad and threatening world war 3.

It really makes it look like we the people, thanks to an uninquisitive and subservient press, don't know anything about what is really going on.

Bush is far from through. Now we have to worry about real nuclear powers like Russia (thanks to a business deal to sell the worthless radar shield to the Poles) and China (thanks to a special mention of the Dalai Lama).

His chronies in the house and senate will still follow his marching orders and that includes the hand-wringing hypocrites in the democratic party.

The spectacle of Schumer slobbering over the next attorney general tells us that in every respect Bush's legacy will infect us for as long as we are lucky enough to escape the most dire results of his actions.

Posted by: lennyjazz | October 18, 2007 12:32 PM

Elephant droppings is what Bush leaves. There are two things which are crucial to my vote -- 1) as ridiculous as it sounds, a pledge not to torture people and I know how to define torture, it is the intentional infliction of significant pain; and 2) a pledge to get us out of Iraq ASAP and not unnecessarily and frivolously get us into another stupid war with Iran.

Posted by: SarahBB | October 18, 2007 11:45 AM

For the record, total federal debt exceeds $9 trillion dollars with unaccrued liabilities of another $40 to $50 trillion.

As for the "Bush Inheritance," Putin's position will barely register. Bush's irresponsible fiscal policies coupled Greenspan's "Ponzi" monetary policies have crippled our economy! By 2009, there is a better than a 50% probability that our financial ("worthless paper") based ecomony will have finally imploded and public officials will have more immediate economic concerns than delusional neocon hegemonic fantasies!

Posted by: dgward44 | October 18, 2007 11:27 AM

"Perhaps most daunting problem Bush may hand his successor would be Iran."

Not at all. The worst problem will be the tattered remains of the US Constitution, the ruins of our intended governmental structure, America's pathetic world standing, and the divided, angry, citizens left wondering how so much harm could befall our once-great nation in a mere 8 years.

Posted by: mobedda | October 18, 2007 11:04 AM

That certainly clears the air about where everyone stands on the issue of Iran. Let me think--has anyone mentioned diplomacy? Is anyone else running for president that might have another idea about dealing with this prombem? Oh yes, over a dozen Democratic canidates but, surely, they don't have anything to bring to the table so lets just ignore them. Washington Post seems to be scrambling for journalists--surely there must be a few out there that are a little more knowledgeble?

Posted by: eham3 | October 18, 2007 10:56 AM

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