Gonzales: A Timely Distraction for All Sides?

This week should be remembered for beginning the fifth year of the war in Iraq, and for the halting efforts of one chamber of Congress to make Year 5 the last. But right now, Washington is delighted to be distracted by a new crisis in full boil.

It's not the controversy over health care for veterans. That one blew up in late February and grew rapidly to national proportions before receding. It will be back, but for the moment it has become a subject of multiple investigations and editorial hand-wringing.

Nor is it the exposure of the FBI's frequent misuse of National Security Letters to invade privacy, a power granted at the height of anti-terrorism concerns. That one was good for two dramatic hearings in Congress this week. But it has to struggle for airtime against the new and overwhelming preoccupation with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the botched dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys.

Questions about the forced resignations began late last year, when people noticed that seven U.S. attorneys had been fired on one day — Dec. 7, or Pearl Harbor Day (talk about bad PR). They were shown the door at the end of their four-year terms even though they were expecting to serve into the second term (as their colleagues were doing).

The timing and manner of the dismissals suggested a kind of hit list, and those involved included several prosecutors who had recently displeased powerful Republicans in Congress. Another was apparently dismissed to make way for a former White House aide to Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser.

For weeks, this story wended its way through the back pages of newspapers. A few members of the House and Senate wrote to Gonzales, and congressional committees held hearings. Some sensed tension rising, others believe the story would simply go away. After all, as the president and his men are now repeating, these attorneys serve at the pleasure of the chief executive. And as long as they all went quietly to their next jobs in government or private practice, their dismissal would scarcely rate a footnote.

But then one spoke up. David Iglesias, former U.S. attorney for New Mexico, held a news conference to make clear he felt he had been bounced because powerful Republicans in the state were unhappy with the pace of his corruption probe of Democrats. And soon he and others were testifying in front of Congress.

For the next two weeks, the scandal advanced through the typical stages. The White House insisted it was not a story, then allowed that the president was "not happy" and that "mistakes were made." The president continued to insist he had full confidence in his AG, whose career he had made back in Texas in the 1990s. Yet the rumor mill could not be stopped.

And when Republican senators began suggesting Gonzales should go, there were soon stories listing his prospective successors.

But then it turned out Bush was in the mood for a fight, after all. Rather than ease his friend into the private sector, he decided to pull up the drawbridge and have a good old-fashioned siege.

Told that Congress wanted to question Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers, Bush said they could not appear in public under oath. It is not likely anyone at the White House thought Congress would accept the president's offer of these two insiders testifying behind closed doors with neither oath nor transcript, so even the offer was a kind of gauntlet.

So now it's time for subpoenas and, in all likelihood, a tour of the court system. Judges will probably have to determine whether the president can keep secret the counsel of his inner circle. Washington has formally entered a state of crisis.

On one side are arrayed all the forces of Congress, intent on exposing scandal in the executive branch. On the other stands the president, tardy perhaps, but now fully engaged. This is the kind of set-piece, toe-to-toe showdown Washington loves. It holds attention and may even produce clear winners and losers.

It's a wonderful show and a marvelous distraction. Because everyone is exhausted with the far more nettlesome problem of Iraq.

The House may or not pass its $124 billion supplemental spending bill that will fund the rest of this year's fighting (among other things), while setting benchmarks for the Iraqis and committing to bringing U.S. combat troops home by September 2008. But even if it musters a bare majority, this legislation will not get near the 60 votes it would need in the Senate. And beyond that lies the near certainty of a veto.

So any meaningful legislative cessation to the war in Iraq seems almost as far off as ever. And while that's frustrating to anti-war Democrats full of steam after seizing nominal control of Congress, the lack of consensus reflects the country. Poll majorities may oppose the war, but there is little agreement on a policy for disengagement.

The president insisted this week that he saw signs of progress in Baghdad, and that could be good news for both parties. If the current troop levels and tactics can buy a moment of relative calm in the capital, it is possible the administration will realize it must seize that moment.

There is a growing bipartisan consensus in both chambers that the unspoken timeline in Iraq is measured in months, not years. That means a window of opportunity for a meaningful drawdown of U.S. troops could happen later this year or early next. If it occurs, such an event would begin to meet the demands of Democrats while leaving some face for the Republicans. And that may be the best either side can hope for right now.

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