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An Iraq Deadline for Bush

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, November 18, 2005

This will be remembered as the week when President Bush lost control over the Iraq war debate. His administration has perhaps six months to get things right. If the situation in Iraq fails to improve significantly, public pressure for withdrawal will become irresistible.

There was a political thunderclap across the capital yesterday when Rep. John Murtha -- Marine veteran, defense specialist, longtime hawk and traditional supporter of presidential prerogatives in foreign policy -- called for pulling American troops out of Iraq. American soldiers, he said, "have done all they can in Iraq." Continued engagement by American troops was "not in the best interest of the United States."

To understand what these words meant coming from this tough, moderately conservative Pennsylvania Democrat, try to imagine Bush calling for increasing taxes on the rich or Arnold Schwarzenegger criticizing bodybuilding. Support for the administration's war strategy is crumbling.

Murtha's comments came just days after the Senate sent Bush a signal of its own. Only five of 44 Democrats voted against the party's amendment to the defense bill calling for estimated timetables on withdrawing from Iraq. The tally pointed to the end of Democratic fear of retaliation from Bush on national security issues. The political shock and awe that the administration regularly deployed after Sept. 11, 2001, no longer works.

Even more alarming for Bush is the fact that Senate Republican leaders felt obligated to introduce and pass their own resolution declaring 2006 "a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty." The resolution called, without specific timetables, for "creating the conditions for the phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq."

Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, noted that the Republican resolution drew heavily on the language of the Democrats' proposal. Durbin praised Sen. John Warner, the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, for a speech this week arguing that the next 60 to 180 days -- notice Warner's timeline -- were critical to the future of Iraq and that the Iraqi government needs to come to grips with its "internal problems."

"Warner's speech," Durbin said in an interview, "was as clear a signal as this White House will ever get that its loyalists in the Republican Party have lost faith in its strategy."

The growing nervousness in Bush's own party is a reaction to more than just short-term poll numbers. What's most striking and little noticed in the recent surveys is that even among the war's supporters, enthusiasm has waned. Intensity is on the side of the war's opponents.

In the most recent Washington Post/ABC News Poll -- conducted from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2 -- 39 percent of Americans said the war in Iraq had been worth fighting, while 60 percent said it was not. But only 25 percent said they felt "strongly" that the war was worth it, while 48 percent felt strongly that it was not. The findings on the strength of feelings about the war were matched by the intensity of feelings about Bush himself: Only 20 percent of those surveyed said they strongly approved of the overall job Bush was doing, while 47 percent strongly disapproved. A president who has always played to his base finds that his base is steadily shrinking.

This helps explain the White House's furious assault against Democrats for questioning the administration's use of intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. If nothing else, Bush wants to get Republican partisans back in line.

But attacking Democrats who voted with him on the war and now have grave doubts about his policies, as Murtha does, is hardly a way for the president to buy himself maneuvering room in Iraq. It will be difficult for Bush's acolytes to cast Murtha, who has regularly stood up for the military policies of Republican presidents during his 31 years in Congress, as some kind of extreme partisan or hippie protester.

If the administration cares more about the long-term outcome in Iraq than short-term maneuvering to punch up its polling numbers, it will pay attention to Murtha's defection and the Senate's warnings. Like it or not, Bush doesn't have much time to arrange a decent result. The administration will lose its Iraqi bet altogether if it fails to deal with this reality. The president's problem is not with partisan or dovish Democrats but with members of his own party, with dispirited hawks and with loyalists who are losing heart. They need to believe Bush has a plausible approach to the endgame. As of now, they don't.

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