Was there a message there? Perhaps it's just that, after a week of tailing George W. Bush around the Mideast at a clip of a country a day, I am losing the power to discriminate. But when King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia paraded one of his prize possessions, the aging Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba, before George W. Bush today at the monarch's magnificent farm outside Riyadh, the distinction between man and horse began to blur for me. Like Bush, Alysheba was the scion of a proud lineage (in the stallion's case, the famed Alydar). And like Bush, the 24-year-old bay was still proud but more than a little broken down—in the horse's case, so far past his prime he looked swaybacked.
There's one big difference, of course. Alysheba has long since given up on winning (in fact, he's not even used for stud anymore). George W. Bush, with just 12 months to go before he's put out to pasture, still thinks he can win the big ones: a Mideast peace deal, an Iranian surrender on nukes, a functioning Iraqi government. Yet even this determined president is showing signs of wear from his tumultuous seven years, and a sense of humility and resignation that were not there before. In an interview today at his guest palace with a group of reporters, of whom I was one, Bush talked about how he had been forced to reassure Abdullah and other leaders during his trip that he hadn't ordered up the recent National Intelligence Estimate that concluded, astonishingly, that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program. Bush said that U.S. intelligence agencies "come to conclusions separate from what I may or may not want," and he shrank from criticizing the CIA. This after a hubris-filled first term in which senior Bush officials brazenly tailored intel to justify an Iraq invasion, treated the agency like errand boys, and insisted that Iran was building a nuclear bomb in defiance of the known facts.
There's a strange thing happening in the waning months of the Bush presidency: he's not really a lame duck yet (Bush certainly showed up the Democratic-controlled Congress last year on everything from Iraq funding to dictating the terms of the budget). But in quiet ways both he and his foreign counterparts are preparing for his departure. King Abdullah could not have been a more gracious host during Bush's two days in Saudi Arabia, awarding the president the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit, the country's highest honor, named after the founder of the modern Saudi state. Behind the scenes, however, the region's leaders are already looking far past him, conducting separate diplomacy with Iran, for instance.
Bush himself is also preparing for his departure. Whereas in his first term he seemed to go out of his way to ignore opposition, now he is actively trying to create sustainable policies that will survive his administration—even if he is succeeded by a Democrat. On the Annapolis peace process, Bush knows he might not be able to do more than "define" a Palestinian state. On Iraq he is declaring plainly that U.S. efforts will long outlast his presidency. And on Iran, he knows full well that his policy of diplomatic coercion, involving the stick of economic strangulation and the carrot of alternative sources of nuclear fuel, will almost certainly not force a breakthrough during his administration.
Bush is still outwardly defiant about his policies— he appears to believe, heart and soul, that his "freedom agenda" for the Mideast, including the invasion of Iraq and ill-starred elections in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, will be judged as wise by history. "There is no doubt in my mind, when history is written, the final page will say: victory was achieved by the United States of America for the good of the world," he told troops in Kuwait the other day.
But he also knows he is no longer the primary author of that history, and that it will have many more chapters. Just one example: last weekend Bush's comment after a meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, his Iraq commander, that he might consider keeping 130,000 presurge troops in Iraq as long as they are needed, and even "slow down" their withdrawal, was widely reported. This was seen as the old Bush defying received opinion. But Bush is also prodding Petraeus and his defense secretary, Robert Gates, to find ways of satisfying Democratic demands for a smaller force. That's why he approved a move that would have been thought apostasy in his first term: the appointment of possible Democratic nominee for defense secretary John Hamre as chairman of Gates's Defense Policy Board. Hamre's task: to sell the policy Bush leaves behind in Iraq to a Hillary Clinton or a Barack Obama, or whoever a Democratic president might turn out to be.
The Bush presidency is still kicking, as he showed with his six-nation Mideast tour over the last week. But the president also knows that, like Alysheba, his best days at the races are long over.