When President Bush confidently predicts victory in Iraq and admits no mistakes, admirers see steely resolve and critics see exasperating stubbornness. But the president's full-speed-ahead message articulated in this week's prime-time address also reflects a purposeful strategy based on extensive study of public opinion about how to maintain support for a costly and problem-plagued military mission.
The White House recently brought onto its staff one of the nation's top academic experts on public opinion during wartime, whose studies are now helping Bush craft his message two years into a war with no easy end in sight. Behind the president's speech is a conviction among White House officials that the battle for public opinion on Iraq hinges on their success in convincing Americans that, whatever their views of going to war in the first place, the conflict there must and can be won.
"There's going to be an appetite by some to relitigate past decisions," said White House counselor Dan Bartlett. But the studies consulted by the White House show that in the long run public support for war is "mostly linked to whether you think you can prevail," he added, which is one reason it is important for Bush to explain "why he thinks it's working and why he thinks it'll win."
For Bush, Bartlett emphasized, the public rhetoric matches the private conviction that his strategy will succeed. But it also leaves Bush in the difficult position of balancing confidence and credibility. The more optimism Bush expresses, the more criticism he draws from Congress and commentators that he is not facing the reality of a tenacious insurgency that, according to U.S. military commanders, remains as potent today as six months ago.
Bush has never been one to dwell publicly on past miscalculations in Iraq, on such issues as weapons of mass destruction, the reception forecast for invading U.S. troops and the durability of the armed resistance after the fall of Saddam Hussein. As he continues to tout progress in the face of near-daily car bombings, critics say, his standing with the public will continue to slip.
"Unless they're more candid with the American people, there's no reason to think the drift in public opinion is going to turn around," said P.J. Crowley of the Center for American Progress, a retired Air Force colonel who was a national security aide in the Clinton White House.
Bush adversaries insisted yesterday that they remain no less committed to victory and denied engaging in defeatism. "I really do think it's winnable, but you've got to keep the American people following with you," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said in an interview. "That's why I urged them to give the speech. He told us the why. He didn't tell us the how. Business as usual won't get us there. I think he has to change some policy or alter some policy."
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who has also been highly critical of Bush's handling of the war effort, rushed out a statement after Tuesday night's speech asserting his own confidence in victory. "I have had differences with the administration over the planning and execution of our postwar policy in Iraq," he said. "However, we all are working toward finding a way to succeed in Iraq."
At stake is the ability to sustain a war that so far has claimed the lives of nearly 1,750 U.S. troops and that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has predicted could last years. The Bush team is acutely aware that public support remains critical for the long-term viability of such a venture, and in the face of sagging polls in recent weeks it has determined to refocus energy on shoring up popular opinion.
In shaping their message, White House officials have drawn on the work of Duke University political scientists Peter D. Feaver and Christopher F. Gelpi, who have examined public opinion on Iraq and previous conflicts. Feaver, who served on the staff of the National Security Council in the early years of the Clinton administration, joined the Bush NSC staff about a month ago as special adviser for strategic planning and institutional reform.
Feaver and Gelpi categorized people on the basis of two questions: "Was the decision to go to war in Iraq right or wrong?" and "Can the United States ultimately win?" In their analysis, the key issue now is how people feel about the prospect of winning. They concluded that many of the questions asked in public opinion polls -- such as whether going to war was worth it and whether casualties are at an unacceptable level -- are far less relevant now in gauging public tolerance or patience for the road ahead than the question of whether people believe the war is winnable.
"The most important single factor in determining public support for a war is the perception that the mission will succeed," Gelpi said in an interview yesterday.
Key Bush advisers think the general public has considerable patience for keeping U.S. forces in Iraq, but they are mindful that opinion leaders, including members of Congress, high-profile analysts, editorial writers and columnists, are more pessimistic on that question. And they acknowledge that images of mayhem that people see from Iraq create doubt about the prospects for success.
In studying past wars, they have drawn lessons different from the conventional wisdom. Bush advisers challenge the widespread view that public opinion turned sour on the Vietnam War because of mounting casualties that were beamed into living rooms every night. Instead, Bush advisers have concluded that public opinion shifted after opinion leaders signaled that they no longer believed the United States could win in Vietnam.
Most devastating to public opinion, the advisers believe, are public signs of doubt or pessimism by a president, whether it was Ronald Reagan after 241 Marines, soldiers and sailors were killed in a barracks bombing in Lebanon in 1983, forcing a U.S. retreat, or Bill Clinton in 1993 when 18 Americans were killed in a bloody battle in Somalia, which eventually led to the U.S. withdrawal there.
The more resolute a commander in chief, the Bush aides said, the more likely the public will see a difficult conflict through to the end. "We want people to understand the difficult work that's ahead," said a senior administration official who insisted on anonymity to speak more freely. "We want them to understand there's a political process to which the Iraqis are committed and there's a military process, a security process, to which we, our coalition partners and the Iraqis are committed. And that there is progress being made but progress in a time of war is tough."
Bush drew criticism for repeated references to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in explaining the stakes in Iraq, but White House officials see that as a crucial part of setting the context for the battle ahead. "One challenge we face is that there's a clear pre-9/11 mind-set among many people," another senior official said. "Thankfully, the president isn't one of them. He knows we are at war -- and he's acting like we are at war. That's what commanders in chief are supposed to do."
But Gelpi, whose studies with Feaver have helped influence the White House thinking, said he thinks the president did not truly achieve what he needed to with the Tuesday speech. As Gelpi described it, the American people remained supportive of the Iraq effort despite extensive violence when they saw incremental goals being met -- first the handover of partial sovereignty last summer, and then the democratic elections in January.
Since then, he said, public support has fallen because there are no more intermediary benchmarks. Bush could have laid some out in his speech short of a timetable for withdrawal, Gelpi said, such as setting targets for how many Iraqi security forces would be trained by certain dates. That, he said, would give the American public a sense of moving forward as these benchmarks are attained.
"What's important for him now to keep the public with him is to look forward and say we're going to make progress and this is what progress looks like," Gelpi said. "He may have stemmed the flow for a little bit, but I don't think he's given the public a framework for showing how we're making progress."