Columnist

An Italian journalist recently proffered a theory popular there. They believe that the Iraq debate within the Republican Party in the last few weeks was contrived for political purposes. The goal was to shift U.S. press and public attention away from the economy and business scandals (which might help Democrats) toward terrorism and foreign policy (which favor Republicans).

My naive response was that this view was too Machiavellian, that the differences among Republicans were real. In any event, the ploy, if it was, backfired. Because of divisions within his party and administration, President Bush is on the defensive in foreign affairs once again.

Only last month, the administration’s swaggering lawyers insisted that Bush didn’t need a congressional vote on war with Iraq. But after meeting with congressional leaders on Wednesday, Bush folded and promised that “this administration will go to the Congress to seek approval.”

And once again, Bush is relying on British Prime Minister Tony Blair to rally support where Bush can’t reach — much as Blair provided eloquent arguments for the war on terror. Blair has promised documentation of the threat posed by Iraq.

That’s precisely what Americans want, loyal Republicans coming back from their districts after recess reported. The words they hear about Bush’s Iraq policies: “concern” and “unease.” They came up over and over.

“My sense from talking to people here is that the case hasn’t been made,” said Rep. Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican who spoke from his district before returning to Washington. His constituents, Camp said, had seen the benefit of allies in both the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan. “They’re concerned about a go-it-alone strategy,” he said, “and that includes going it alone without the American people.”

Rep. Thomas Petri, a Wisconsin Republican, said his constituents expressed “concern about whether we know what we’re doing or how we’re going to do it.” Of the administration, Petri said: “I figure these are smart people. They must know what they’re doing. But there’s something missing.”

Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said her constituents have “a lot of reservations. They want to support the president, they trust his judgment. But they’re very uneasy … about invading another country unless the case is very strong.”

Rep. Doug Bereuter, a Nebraska Republican who is one of the GOP’s leading foreign policy voices, said that the “hard line” put forth by Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld might yet have a positive effect — “to soften up the Europeans” and push them to support tough inspections in Iraq.

But Bush’s silence in the face of Cheney’s words — exactly the opposite of the approach for Afghanistan — has had serious costs. “There are costs in terms of confidence in the Bush administration’s foreign policy,” Bereuter said. “It may have fractured support for actions against al Qaida around the world.” Bereuter underscored that the conflict in Afghanistan and with al Qaida is “far from finished” — and he spoke before Thursday’s assassination attempt against Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Rep. Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican, was hearing the same thing. “The public doesn’t want to say the president is wrong, but they’re very uneasy,” he said.

This queasiness is reflected in recent polling. A Pew Research Center survey released Thursday found only 22 percent of Americans thought the military effort against terrorism was going “very well,” down from 45 percent last October and 38 percent in January. An ABC News poll found that just 52 percent of Americans approve of Bush’s handling of Iraq. And while 56 percent favored military action to depose Saddam Hussein, a quarter of those supporters dropped away when asked if they’d still favor military action in the face of opposition from allies.

Bush is a shrewd reader of polls, so he’s reaching out to Congress and to our allies. Administration officials are signaling they might seek tough inspections of Saddam’s weapons facilities before they propose war.

But in this summer of administration dissension, something was lost. Support for this president’s approach to foreign affairs is no longer automatic. Many Republicans think the president would be smart to force Democrats to vote on Iraq before November’s elections. Maybe that’s shrewd, but it’s less shrewd than it would have been a month ago.