Has the U.S. public lost so much confidence in
the George W. Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war that its current
strategy – to the extent one actually exists – is unsustainable?
With President Bush himself besieged by antiwar protesters on his seemingly
endless and ill-timed vacation at his Texas ranch, that appears to be The Big
Question, just two weeks before the resumption of official business back in
Both Republican lawmakers, who face mid-term elections 15 months from now,
and the military itself, which, as a result of the Vietnam debacle, has taken
as an article of faith that the loss of civilian support must be avoided at
all costs, appear increasingly restive and unhappy with the course of events.
"There are more and more voices within the party and military who are
beginning to acknowledge that the situation in Iraq is not only not improving,
but is actually getting worse," said Jim Cason of the Friends
Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), a lobby group that opposed the
"The administration is under more and more pressure from within – especially
from the Pentagon and influential Republicans on Capitol Hill – and it clearly
hasn't figured out what to do about it."
Media coverage of the war has turned particularly gloomy over the past several
weeks, and particularly since the Aug. 3 killing of 14 U.S. servicemen in one
deadly bombing incident.
The front-page headlines tell the story. "In
Iraq, No Clear Finish Line," which ran in the Washington Post
a week ago, was soon succeeded by "U.S.
Lowers Sights on What Can be Achieved in Iraq," which was then eclipsed
by a more general analysis Thursday entitled "U.S.
Policy on 'Axis of Evil' Suffers Spate of Setbacks."
Among other points, that article noted that the administration's blunders in
Iraq had clearly strengthened the strategic position of North Korea and especially
Iran, whose influence with the new government in Baghdad has been growing steadily,
much to Washington's discomfort.
As for the other "court paper" of the U.S. capital, the New York
Times, a searing critique of Bush's policy by columnist Frank Rich entitled
Tell the President the War Is Over" appeared virtually everywhere on
the Internet almost the instant that it was published last Sunday.
And an analysis Thursday, "Bad
Iraq War News Has Some in GOP Worried Over '06 Vote," argued that even
among staunch war hawks in Congress, Iraq was fast becoming a political albatross
of Vietnam-like dimensions.
Even arch-hawk Newt Gingrich, former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives,
admitted that the near-victory of the Democratic candidate and Iraq veteran
who denounced Bush as a "chickenhawk" in a solidly Republican district
in Ohio earlier this month was a "wake-up call" for the party.
Public opinion polls have been telling a similar story. A Newsweek
poll taken two weeks ago found that confidence in Bush's handling of the
war had fallen to an all-time low of 34 percent, which, as Rich pointed out,
was roughly equivalent to the approval rating of former President Lyndon Johnson's
handling of the Vietnam War after the 1968 Tet offensive that is widely believed
to have marked the "tipping point" in public opposition to Washington's
intervention in Indochina.
An earlier Associated Press-Ipsos
survey found somewhat more support for Bush's Iraq policy – 38 percent.
But that was also an all-time low for that survey and was also conducted just
before the killing of the 14 Marines.
Another poll by USA Today, CNN, and Gallup published a few days later
found majorities believe that going to war in Iraq was a mistake and has made
the U.S. more vulnerable to terrorism, and now favor withdrawing U.S. troops.
A third of those questioned said they want all troops withdrawn immediately.
Growing tensions within the administration and among its supporters have also
contributed to the sense of disarray that has taken hold.
When senior military commanders began floating the idea that Washington could
begin withdrawing substantial numbers of its 140,000 troops in Iraq by next
spring, Bush himself dismissed it as mere speculation.
That exchange, in addition to further alienating the officer corps from the
White House, spurred a spate of new attacks by prominent neoconservatives against
Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, whom they have always blamed for being insufficiently
committed to "transforming" Iraq.
"What the president needs to do now is tell the Pentagon to stop talking
about [and planning for] withdrawal, and make sure they are planning for victory,"
Kristol in The Weekly Standard, adding, "to win, the president
needs a defense secretary who is willing to fight and able to win."
Writing in the Washington Post, Frederick Kagan, a military analyst
at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), also denounced
any talk of withdrawal as "dangerous and unwarranted," arguing
that the "light infantry" and police forces being trained by Washington
will "be dependent on significant levels of U.S. military support for years
Yet even Kagan's AEI colleague, economist Kevin Hassett, suggested that Iraq
has now become a major political problem for Bush and the Republicans, one that
prevented the public from recognizing how well the U.S. economy is performing.
Are Americans Sour About Everything?" he asked in a column this week
for Bloomberg. "Iraq," he replied, noting the imminence of next year's
To the surprise of many observers, Bush, who has spent three weeks at his ranch
desperately avoiding meeting with Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed
in Iraq who has emerged as an antiwar icon, has done nothing to dispel the growing
While his media supporters have mounted a predictably nasty campaign to discredit
Sheehan, her presence at "Camp Casey," the spot where she and her
supporters are conducting their vigil in Crawford, Bush's failure to meet with
her because "I think it's also important for me to go on with my life"
appears surprisingly callous.
The passivity of his handlers in permitting Sheehan to dominate news coverage
from the Texas White House has also surprised observers and bolstered the impression
that the administration has both lost its political touch and has no answers
to the kinds of questions Sheehan and the public at large are raising.
While the administration's predicament clearly favors Democrats, signs that
Iraq is fueling potential political problems for them are also on the rise.
While prominent Democrats in the House of Representatives, unlike their Republican
colleagues, have already lined up in favor of a gradual withdrawal from Iraq,
the party's most prominent figures in the Senate, from which the 2008 presidential
candidate is likely to emerge, have until now generally remained hawkish on
Iraq, lest they be considered "soft" on national security.
On Wednesday, however, Wisconsin
Sen. Russell Feingold, a normally cautious lawmaker who is considering a
presidential bid, broke ranks with other likely candidates, including Sens.
Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden, by calling for the withdrawal of all U.S.
troops from Iraq by the end of 2006 and calling his party colleagues "too
timid" in challenging Bush on the issue.
His challenge came as some party members have expressed growing anxiety over
the deepening rift between grassroots Democrats who support withdrawal and more
hawkish party leaders who have echoed Bush in asserting that U.S. credibility
would suffer irreversible harm if Washington fails to pacify the country.