President Bush has a problem.
This war was supposed to have gone so differently. By now it is clear that the infantile fantasy of its architects ("shock and awe," "a cake walk," "flowers at our feet," "six months and out," and "the spreading of democracy throughout the Middle East") did not pan out. Instead, US troops have been transformed into an occupation army fighting an enemy about whom we know too little, with stories and pictures of hideous terrorist attacks and growing tallies of war dead filling the daily press.
As a result, strains are beginning to show. US public support for the war is waning, with President Bush’s job performance in the war effort now down to 40% and a strong majority of 60% now saying that the war in Iraq wasn’t worth fighting in the first place.
More worrisome to the White House are signs that not only Democrats, but some prominent Republicans, are beginning to raise tough questions about the war and how it is being conducted. Add to this, the embarrassment created last week with leading Administration figures publicly contradicting each other and the military over assessments of how the war is going.
Clearly something had to be done to stop the drift and reestablish public confidence in the President’s leadership in the war effort. And so White House strategists (including newly hired consultants specializing in "war-time presidents" and public opinion) have launched a campaign to seize control of the public discourse on the war. The prolonged attacks on Senator Durbin (for his criticism of the behavior of US forces in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere), top Bush aide Karl Rove’s blistering indictment of the weaknesses of "liberals" in the war on terror, the President’s meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, and his televised speech to the nation provided the launching pads for this campaign.
The themes engaged by the White House are not new. The President packaged the war in the context of the war on terror and 9/11-" we are fighting the enemy there so we won’t have to fight them here." He further defined the struggle as one to expand freedom, calling it America’s "mission in the world." And the President stressed that we dare not fail and will not fail, because if we do, our sacrifices will have been in vain and Iraq will become a haven for al-Qaeda. Now while there are serious questions that can be raised with each of these themes, the real problems faced by the White House lie on a different level.
First, despite the President’s confidence and optimism, the reality is that the American people are weary of this war. The Pentagon may want to wage a war without end, but the public appears to be uninterested in any such prolonged foreign engagement so lacking in clarity and whose outcome is so uncertain.
Second, there is the persistent disconnect between the Administration’s obvious pride in the developments they point to on Iraq’s political track (the elections, a new government, work towards a constitution, etc.) and the security situation which continues to steal headlines and dominate the news. In the end, they win no points for the political progress as long as the casualties continue to mount and the security situation severely hampers reconstruction efforts.
Finally there is the fact that this war is not the President’s only problem. As bad as the situation is, the war on terror remains one of his stronger suits. On the domestic front Bush is finding it difficult to gain traction on a number of his targeted priorities. For example, after waging a six-month long campaign to sell his Social Security reform program, public support for his efforts is now lower than it was when he began.
What is saving the President, at this point, is the fact that with Republicans controlling both Houses of Congress he faces no real challenge from the legislative branch. In addition, Democrats have not been able to mount a coherent and effective opposition. It might be said that, more than the White House, Republicans in Congress are now driving the agenda on a range of issues-from Social Security reform to action on a number of conservative "social issues." And Democrats, without any clear national spokesperson and absent any clear message, have not been able to break through and drive the public debate on either the conduct of the war (for which they have not presented an alternative) or on the domestic front, as well.
And so Bush, facing these challenges, is left with no recourse but to fight to salvage this war and the prestige and security of the country he committed to it. The odds against success remain great, and continue to grow, but it is a fight the President cannot afford to lose.