Analysis

Bush Faces Dual Challenges on Iraq

President Bush wishes U.S. troops in Iraq a happy Thanksgiving from his ranch in Crawford, Tex.
President Bush wishes U.S. troops in Iraq a happy Thanksgiving from his ranch in Crawford, Tex. (By Eric Draper)

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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 25, 2005

As he leads a fierce campaign this month to rebut criticism of the Iraq war, President Bush faces twin challenges -- one of them rooted in history, the other in the political realities of the moment.

Bush's historical burden is that there is no recent precedent for a leader using persuasion to reverse a steady downward slide for a military venture of the sort he is facing. Only clear evidence of success in Iraq is likely to alleviate widespread unease about the central project of this presidency, public opinion experts and political strategists say.

That leads to the White House's most daunting political problem. Even if Iraq is someday viewed as a success -- and Bush's decision to try to make that country a democratic beacon in the Middle East seen as visionary -- it is an open question whether this proof can arrive during his presidency. Most military appraisals of Iraq foresee a long road of violence and instability ahead, as well as a substantial U.S. troop presence for the indefinite future.

"People are willing to pay a certain price . . . but for many people, it's too rich for their blood," said John Mueller, a political science professor at Ohio State University and an authority on wars and public opinion. "So even if it turns out well, they're still going to see it as a mistake."

This collision between public desire for a near-term resolution in Iraq and Bush's insistence on a long-term commitment limits his options, analysts say. His most realistic goal may be to manage widespread frustration about the war from growing into a powerful antiwar movement.

"I don't think there's any way he could turn this into a big success," said Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Public Attitudes. "At some point, he may decide that he's going to try to reduce the damage -- and it's clearly creating damage for him now."

Bush plans to use the time before the December elections in Iraq to talk about the U.S. stake and make the case that he has a strategy that is working, beginning on Wednesday with a speech in Annapolis that will focus on what the administration says is clear progress in training the Iraqi security forces. Other speeches will follow as White House officials attempt to use the final weeks of this year and early next year to shape public opinion.

Administration officials believe the congressional debates last week showed that Democrats are divided, and they say that the opposition party's solutions are far closer to those Bush is pursuing than to the call by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) to begin an immediate withdrawal.

What is not clear is whether an emphatic restatement of the administration's strategy will break through to a skeptical public, or whether the president needs to acknowledge in some dramatic way the public's disaffection to create a more receptive environment -- a decision that only he can make. If he is not willing to do that, some analysts believe, public focus will be on the daily flow of bad news in Iraq more than on Bush's view of the ultimate goal.

"We keep reading stories about five Marines dying today and 55 Shiites being blown up in Baghdad," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and Press. "There is considerable frustration over that, and that frustration is the source of political problem for Bush. He's got his name on this war."

Kohut suggested that public opinion could change, but only if there is a decline in U.S. casualties, the beginning of troop withdrawals and a clearer sense that Iraq has become more stable and democratic. "If there's less violence there generally and our people are not getting hurt and there is some feeling that this is a better place than it was, there might be some benefit for Bush -- or at least stop the bleeding," he said.

This bleeding inevitably summons a historical analogy. Comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam are imperfect, but the trend lines in public opinion are similar enough to suggest the size of the challenge now facing Bush and his advisers.


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