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Back to School
War in Iraq: Bush's Policies
With Thomas E. Mann
Brookings Institution Senior Fellow

Friday, April 18, 2003; 10:30 a.m. ET

How has the war in Iraq affected President Bush's domestic agenda? What is the impact of the war on the U.S. political landscape? What can Bush do in the wake of the war with Iraq to not repeat his father's political fate?

Thomas E. Mann, senior fellow of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, was online to discuss the impact of the war on President Bush's policies

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

The transcript follows.

Laurel, Md.: Have you seen Michael Kinsley's Op-Ed today? The gist of it is that contracts for rebuilding Iraq are being disbursed to politically-connected companies without the usually open bidding. If this characterization is accurate and fair, it adds to the image of the Bush administration as a crony of corporate interests.

If WMDs of sufficient quantity and sophistication to be a threat to American are never found; does the Administration have a credibility problem abound its aims and methods?

washingtonpost.com: Spoils to the Victor, (Post, April 18)

Thomas E. Mann: Kinsley makes a valid point. It is in the interests of the United States for all countries to allow open bidding on contracts for reconstruction. The sooner we switch from churlishness to magnanimity, the better off we will be in the long, difficult, costly road ahead in Iraq and the Middle East.

The American public now indicates finding weapons of mass destruction and Saddam are not necessary to justify the war, but our standing in the world depends importantly on lending credence to our prewar charge that Iraq's WMDs posed an imminent threat to our security.

Silver Spring, Md.: It seemed to me that the reason to go to war against Iraq switched from stopping countries from producing weapons of mass destruction to liberating the Iraqi people. Do you think the American people will accept the reason for not finding WMD is that they were shipped to Syria? Do you think that most Americans are not concerned about our image around the world?

Thomas E. Mann: As I just indicated, the public now seems to accept the shift in rationale for the war in Iraq. But their support over time would clearly be buttressed if WMDs are found in Iraq. I think Americans are concerned about our image around the world. The fact that we have become an international pariah on the streets of countries around the globe provides the basis for a serious critique of the Bush foreign policy.

Bainbridge, Ga.: The press is on this kick that President Bush "won his gamble" and now he'll be able to pass anything he wants. I mean, I'm very happy we did something about Saddam, but we'll only know if we won our gamble years from now, when there's a democracy and not another dictatorship in Iraq. It just seems false that we should give the President a free hand because we've succeeded in stage one of a many stage process. Thank you and God Bless America.

Thomas E. Mann: I believe it is very unlikely that the President will be able to translate the military victory in Iraq into domestic political victories at home. His agenda on tax cuts, medicare and social security reform, energy, tort reform, etc. face huge obstacles. Each issue has its own substance and politics, and the president's current popularity will not alter them. His biggest problem is the widespread belief in the policy community and in the public that his economic "growth" package has little growth potential but would almost certainly fuel exploding deficits at the very time the baby boomers begin to retire.

Wheaton, Md.: Would you agree that most voters are glad to have a president who is willing to withstand international and leftist opposition and do what is right in dealing with terrorism?

Thomas E. Mann: Americans like a strong, decisive president who is willing to take bold steps to combat terrorism. But Americans are uncomfortable when they see most countries and their publics reacting negatively to U.S. leadership. They are uncertain what the right way to combat terrorism is, but for now are willing the give the president the benefit of the doubt.

Silver Spring, Md.: Why does the media let George W. Bush get away with telling people that he wants to cut taxes to "give the people their money back?" I have not seen any reports about the "peoples debt" and Mr. Bush never mentions it.

With a huge deficit, tax cuts are in fact putting more debt on "the peoples charge card." The increasing debt, which is now up to about "10,000 per tax payer, may result in cutting "the peoples benefits" such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Thomas E. Mann: The deficit this year will exceed $400 billion dollars and that includes counting the surplus in the social security trust fund. You are right -- there is no money to give back to the people. In two short years our fiscal situation has changed dramatically -- from surpluses to deficits. I believe the President is willing to continue cutting taxes and running large deficits because he believes this will eventually build pressure to reduce the size of government, including our commitments to social security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: I want to know the estimate for U.S.-Iraq war.

Thomas E. Mann: The cost of the war --$40 to $60 billion -- will pale in significance to the cost of postwar reconstruction.

Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: What is the reason for the Bush administration to shy away from actively associating with the UN in post war reconstruction and a the creation of a workable and stable political system for the Iraqis to take care of themselves?

Thomas E. Mann: Bush feels burned by the UN Security Council and resists having the US be constrained by countries who did nothing to remove Saddam from power. Many officials in the administration are deeply skeptical of the utility of the UN. The point is that our efforts in Iraq now need broad international support and legitimacy. Individual countries, NATO, international agencies and the UN can help. It is in our interest to welcome that help.

Arlington, Va.: Do you have any sense that Bush's victorious warrior image will overcome the problems of the economy, particularly since many States are cutting back on services and the federal government is not perceived as willing to help?

Thomas E. Mann: I think President Bush is now at his high-water mark politically. His ratings will return to pre-9/11 and pre-war levels as Americans view the messiness of postwar Iraq and turn their attention to problems at home. The President will certainly work to keep security issues and the war against terrorism front and center. And he will be very active on the home front to demonstrate leadership on the economy and other domestic issues. But appearing to care is no substitute for a healthy economy. I am surprised he hasn't altered his economic proposals to provide some real stimulus, such as immediate financial assistance to the states.

College Park, Md.: It seems to me that the biggest problem facing the current administration is not the failing economy, continuing insecurity, or even their lack of credibility. It is that the war on Iraq was promised as a "fix all" solution to the above, but is already exacerbating the existing problems and creating new ones.

How can this administration recover from the fallout of the unreasonable expectations they themselves created? Can they?

Thomas E. Mann: There certainly is a risk that we will win the war in Iraq but lose the peace, that military success does not produce the larger benefits of enhanced security, democratization and economic growth. Bush can certainly win reelection in 2004 if the domestic economy revives and the situation in Iraq stabilizes. It's way too soon to count him the certain loser or victor.

Silver Spring, Md.: What do you think happened to the discussion around the legality of the war? Will it come back? In my opinion, ignoring these questions is equivalent to letting a bank robber get away with saying "Okay, I've robbed the bank, you've seen me rob it, now just move on!" Is it that people want to give Bush and Co. a pass or people feel helpless to do anything about it?

Thomas E. Mann: The legality issue will arise if the Administration seeks to use the military option against other "rogue" states. With Iraq, there was a long history of aggression, multiple UN resolutions, sanctions, etc. A legal case could be made for war against Iraq. But that is not the case with Syria, Iran and North Korea.

New American Century?: Two questions:

How strong of an influence do you think the ultrahawkish neocons like Perle, Kristol, Bolton, Wolfowitz, etc., have on making American foreign policy? Does Pres. Bush even bother to listen to dissenting voices? I am afraid we are on our way to becoming a new imperialist power, overextended and unwelcome in too many parts of the world.

Thomas E. Mann: The "democratic imperialists" you mention are feeling rather pleased with themselves and with the direction of the Bush foreign policy. There are alternative voices in the administration. Rumsfeld and Cheney are more aggressive nationalists who are a bit skeptical of imposing American-style democracy around the world. And Colin Powell remains at heart a liberal internationalist. Bush listens to all of them, but seems to switch back and forth between the first two.

Chatsworth, Ga.: So, if the economy DOES improve and Iraq DOES stabilize, will we see Thomas E. Mann stumping for Dubbya next year?

Thomas E. Mann: I don't stump for candidates, I study American politics and policy.

Detroit, Mich.: Are you surprised that we have not found the WMD yet?

Thomas E. Mann: Actually not. The UN inspectors probably forced Saddam to hide them, making them less accessible for use in the war and more difficult to locate after it. We should reserve judgment on WMDs until a thorough search, informed by Iraqi scientists, is conducted.

Weapon of mass distraction?: While getting rid of Hussein certainly makes for a better world, I think that the main reasons for the war were to distract the public from Bush's miserable handling of the economy, provide a distraction from his very close ties to Enron and the oil industry, and to simply exploit an issue -- national security -- on which the Republicans seem to have the advantage. The fact that we are targeting Syria next (then, undoubtedly, Iran) only reinforces my view. Your thoughts?

Thomas E. Mann: You underestimate the sincerity and conviction of Bush after 9/11 on the war against terrorism and on the centrality of Iraq to that war. I actually believe Iraq poses more long-term political problems than benefits to Bush. He may be wrong in his beliefs and actions, but they are not disingenuous.

Thomas E. Mann: Thank you all for your questions and comments. Sorry I didn't have time to respond to all of them. I enjoyed our conversation.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company