The Washington Times

The Bush administration, and especially the president himself, is offering an interesting illustration of the political phenomenon of success feeding on itself. There is such a thing as pure luck in politics, and even a lucky streak. But there is usually a very different explanation for what is happening when things are going well politically – and it has the virtue of also explaining what is happening when things are going badly.

Put simply, administrations get in trouble when they don’t know what to do, and they avoid trouble when they have in place a conceptual framework (“institutional culture” would be another term) that allows everyone from the president on down to know more or less instinctively in any given situation what to do.

For a brilliant portrait of an administration lost on precisely these grounds, read my friend John Podhoretz’s book on the White House of Bush the father, “Hell of a Ride.” For a compelling counterexample, look at the White House of Bush the son – most recently, the president’s remarkably successful trip through Asia.

In a different kind of administration or in different times, there might well have been fundamental questions about what such a trip was really all about. Would its primary focus be on security issues or on economic issues? Was its real audience in Asia or at home? Was it time for a bold initiative or to hold back and let things develop? Then there are the vexing particulars: Is China a competitor or a partner? Is South Korea’s “sunshine” policy toward the hermit North wise or foolish? What do you do about the long-faltering Japanese economy?

These questions are precisely the sort of things on which administrations can come unglued. One might say that the post-September 11 environment necessarily imposed a certain amount of order and discipline on the Bush administration. The correct response to this contention is “yes, but.” For example, former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke proposed in an op-ed piece that this would be a good time to begin work on a “fourth communique” with China. Had Mr. Holbrooke been the sitting U.N. ambassador, or perhaps even secretary of state, and worked seriously to advance such a proposal internally in an administration facing circumstances like those now facing the Bush administration, it’s possible that he would have quickly prevailed and everything would have worked out smoothly. But this is exactly the sort of idea that could, in principle, have set off a nasty and distracting internal row – with some in favor of the idea, others opposed, still more moving on to think about modalities and content. Such a debate would likely take place at the expense of a steady focus on the main event, namely, the war on terror.

If proposals like that one are in fact surfacing within the Bush administration, they seem to be getting knocked down just as rapidly, on the grounds that everyone understands perfectly that the terror war is the main event – and that the ability to wage it isn’t helped by sideshows. This sort of clarity is not automatic, but it is on display here. On the Asia trip, the priorities were clear, not only within the administration but also to those watching from the outside: This was a security-focused trip designed to build maximum support for an ongoing campaign against terror and states seeking weapons of mass destruction. And it really wasn’t about anything else.

In Japan, Mr. Bush won generous support from the prime minister for the president’s “axis of evil” formulation. Mr. Bush’s success in Japan makes the fashionable European dismissal of the term as “simplistic” look a bit, well, simplistic. In South Korea, Mr. Bush had the task of defending his application of the phrase to North Korea, which he did with clarity, while at the same time reassuring South Koreans on the front lines that he doesn’t mean to do anything rash besides providing moral clarity.

And then China. Beijing’s rulers have warmed up a bit to the United States since September 11. But the most important part of Mr. Bush’s visit had little to do with them. Instead, Mr. Bush made a play to repair the image of the United States in the eyes of a new generation of Chinese, among whom a reflexive anti-Americanism had become commonplace. At Tsinghua University, Mr. Bush talked about the virtue of liberty in the United States constrained by law and custom, including a strong sense of family and community. The latter two opened grounds on which he could legitimately praise Chinese society, an expression of respect that is more likely than any policy change to prompt return goodwill from Chinese.

It’s hard to imagine what the Bush administration would be like now if September 11 had been just another day. But while the focus and the clarity of executive decision-making may have been called forth that day, those qualities had to come from somewhere, and in any administration, they can only really come (or fail to come) from the president.