Losing the War of Opinion

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Bush administration risks having more Americans ask, "What are we doing in Iraq and Afghanistan?" than, "How are we doing in Iraq and Afghanistan?"

That dangerous transition point could be glimpsed in this month's Post-ABC News survey, when 52 percent of those polled said that the war in Iraq was not contributing to American security and 49 percent said they disapproved of President Bush's handling of the global war on terrorism.

Polls are snapshots that change quickly, as White House aides quickly pointed out. But this one reflects my own anecdotal sense of a shift that I have been hearing about from politicians and activists in the nation's capital and elsewhere over the past six weeks. This survey should be treated by the White House as a serious warning.

The Bush administration argues that out there "on the ground" in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is reason for optimism as well as concern -- and there is. But the White House is losing that argument with the American public and does not seem to understand why.

It is an argument that increasingly centers on the very character of the American involvement in those conflicts, not only on the narrower cost-benefit ratio of U.S. casualties there.

The cost-benefit analysis -- the "How are we doing?" question -- can be rewritten in a short time by changing circumstances and the information and perceptions the changes generate. But the character question of "What are we doing" demands answers and judgments that rapidly get set in concrete. The next important tipping point may not be in Iraq but in the United States.

It is not just the surge of violence in both conflicts in the past month that is shaking support for Bush. It is also the growing concern of middle-of-the-road Americans that they cannot trust the information they are being given by the administration -- and particularly by the Pentagon -- about the conduct and progress of these wars.

The Bush administration established itself as a highly secretive and defensive group of policymakers even before Sept. 11, 2001, and has used the real security threats the nation faces to broaden and entrench both traits. It now pays the price for that behavior in the form of ebbing public confidence that could impede the war effort.

The failure to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has forced the administration to emphasize the moral reasons that underlie the case for regime change, a cause I argued for through four successive administrations. But it is American morality -- not Saddam Hussein's demonstrated lack thereof -- that is becoming a defining issue now, however unfair that may seem.

From the disclosures about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib to the apparent falsification of the circumstances of the friendly-fire death of former pro football player Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, there has been a lack of serious accountability for lies, mistakes and worse in the military and civilian chains of command.

Much of the questioning of American intentions and actions has been manipulated by enemies and overblown by the gullible. The allegations of Koran abuse are a supreme example of this. The Pentagon is right when it says that by the standards of all previous wars, American troops have been highly scrupulous.

But the always grudging, often secretive and uniformly defensive way in which the administration responds to requests for information -- often treating those requests as criticisms in and of themselves -- has fostered this growing credibility gap about U.S. behavior.

Yes, much of the criticism of President Bush comes from partisans with their own axes to grind, and from those who opposed the Iraq invasion under any circumstances and always will oppose it, no matter how much Iraqis are helped by it. Such complaints are white noise that Bush and aides no longer hear.

But the White House is too quick to find comfort in the ignorant partisanship of some foes and the partisan ignorance of others -- and in the reality that patience is required in all wars and particularly in one as amorphous and demanding as this struggle has become.

All of that is true, but it is not the whole story. Patience in times of hardship and danger has to be earned by leadership, by candor and by demonstrated accountability and responsibility at the top. A poll may be nothing more than a snapshot, but it can show us things about ourselves we need to see.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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