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.
Mueller's analysis of public opinion shows that public patience with the war in Iraq has been far more limited than it was during the Vietnam War. Writing in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, he notes that about half of all Americans had judged the war a mistake by early this year, when there were about 1,500 combat deaths in Iraq. In Vietnam, there were 20,000 fatalities by the 1968 Tet offensive, a psychological turning point in the war, when a similar percentage of Americans called that conflict a mistake.
"This lower tolerance for casualties is largely due to the fact that the American public places far less value on the stakes in Iraq than it did on those in Korea and Vietnam," he writes.
Most worrisome to the administration, given overall disapproval of the war, is that a slight majority of Americans now say they believe Bush deliberately misled the country in making the case for war in 2002 and 2003, and only 40 percent say the president is honest and trustworthy -- findings that have registered with seismic significance inside the administration. As Karlyn Bowman, who studies public opinion trends at the American Enterprise Institute, put it: "Is the personal bond broken? That's what they must be worried about."
White House counselor Dan Bartlett acknowledged the concern. "I do think that it demonstrates that if you spend enough money and repeat the charge enough, the old political axiom in Washington can come true: that charges left unanswered can stick," he said. "That's why we felt it important to marshal a vigorous defense by calling out our critics and the transparency of their charges."
Bush launched the counterattack on Veterans Day, and Vice President Cheney has weighed in with harsh criticism of Bush's detractors. Administration officials see it as a necessary prelude to making the case for the president's policies.
One White House official, who was willing to talk candidly about internal strategy only without being identified by name, acknowledged that "those numbers are troubling" in recent polls, but expressed confidence that they will recover because the public fundamentally regards Bush as "a person of honesty and integrity."
What happens on the ground in Iraq will play the largest role in determining whether the public eventually sees Bush's decision to go to war as one worth the cost in lives and dollars. But progress toward a constitutional government in Iraq over the past year has done little to reverse the steady decline in public opinion about the war, in large part because of continuing reports of casualties and violence. Administration officials have signaled that troop levels will begin to decline next year, but not precipitously and not according to any precise timeline. Announcing firm withdrawal dates would only give Iraqi insurgents an incentive to wait out the U.S. presence, administration officials believe.
Mueller said he doubts that additional rhetoric from Bush will help his cause at home, noting the intensity of opposition his policies has already generated. "If someone is strongly opposed [to the war], they're not likely to reverse," he said. "Nor are disaffected Democrats, who have taken the lead on it."
Kull said the best the administration may be able to hope for is a draw in the battle for public opinion. If positive changes occur, from a reduction in violence to a stable government to more international involvement, "then he may come out with a possible modest success out of it," he said. "But it's important to remember there are a lot of forces out there that are very determined to make sure this doesn't look like a success. . . . So it's unlikely it will look like a clear success."
But Bartlett said White House officials do not accept the possibility that Iraq will remain a continuing drag on Bush's presidency. "When you're in a tough spot -- and we're in a tough spot because of the nature of the enemy and the debate at home -- the snapshots will reflect [negative] public opinion," he said. "But we don't think they're permanent."