Looking for a Villain

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, March 14, 2006; 12:42 PM

President Bush always does better against an enemy. His strongest public support has come when demonizing Osama bin Laden (not hard), Saddam Hussein (a bit harder) -- and then John Kerry (his finest achievement).

But as the morass in Iraq seems to worsen day by day, identifying the enemy there has become increasingly difficult. Is it Sunnis? Shiites? Foreign terrorists? The insurgency? Saddamists? Independent militias? Is it us?

Yesterday brought two strong signs that even as Bush is trying -- and failing -- to placate the public about Iraq, he's increasingly keen to focus attention on a new villain: Iran.

Building up public support for military action against Iran seems like an uphill battle right now. For one, Bush would need to better explain how Iran, even if it had nuclear weapons, was a threat to the United States. And it's not likely that the public -- or the press -- will take his assertions on face value this time.

But if Bush's ability to govern, in either Iraq or his own country, has been overestimated at times, the same cannot be said for his ability to campaign and stoke a nation to war.

A Bush who appears embattled, defensive and quite possibly overwhelmed inevitably leads to lower and lower public approval ratings.

But White House aides are abundantly aware that there's something about the image of a fearless American president boldly kicking butt that seems to fill the public with an enthusiasm that transcends even the issue of whose butt it may be.

The New Villain

The seminal piece on the White House's new focus on Iran came yesterday in The Washington Post. Peter Baker and Glenn Kessler wrote: "As the dispute over its nuclear program arrives at the U.N. Security Council today, Iran has vaulted to the front of the U.S. national security agenda amid Bush administration plans for a sustained campaign against the ayatollahs of Tehran. . . .

"The internal administration debate that raged in the first term between those who advocated more engagement with Iran and those who preferred more confrontation appears in the second term to be largely settled in favor of the latter. . . .

"The focus on Iran inside the administration lately has been striking. Bush, according to aides, has been spending more time on the issue, and advisers have invited 30 to 40 specialists for consultations in recent months. . . .

"Some analysts believe this year will lead to a decision point for Bush whether to use a military option."

There's much more there. Go read it and come back.

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