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June 23, 2005

Bush Becoming a Casualty of His Own War


by Leon Hadar

Imagine that the United States had a parliamentary system like that of Canada or Britain in which prime ministers are under constant threat that declining public support could make it difficult for them to maintain the cohesion of their ruling coalition and could end up bringing down their governments and leading to new elections.

It is quite possible that a prime minister faced with the same kind of dwindling popularity that U.S. President George W. Bush is experiencing these days would be pressed to call for new parliamentary elections.

But the United States doesn't have a parliamentary system, and that means that despite a stream of bad news and declining popularity, Mr. Bush will continue to occupy the White House for the next three years and complete his second term in office, even if the Republicans lose their majority in the House of Representatives and Senate in the next mid-term elections.

At the same time, Mr. Bush is in danger of being transformed from a lame-duck president – who, like many second-term White House occupants, is constrained in his ability to promote new legislative and policy initiatives – into a dead duck, that is, into a politically wounded president whose troubles infect not only his political party but the entire policy-making process in Washington.

That such a prospect is even being considered now by political analysts reflects the dramatic erosion in Mr. Bush's political standing since the last presidential election. Recall the predictions in the aftermath of the 2004 race: With the Republicans in control of all branches of governments there was a lot of talk in Washington about a historic realignment that was supposedly taking place in American politics as a result of Mr. Bush's electoral victory.

Doing a Franklin Roosevelt

Pundits were confident that the Republicans would be the ruling party for many years to come, and that in the short run, Mr. Bush would have no serious problems in pressing forward his domestic and foreign policy agendas and forcing Congress to adopt his proposals, including his plan to privatize America's huge government-funded national insurance program, Social Security.

In fact, one historian even compared Mr. Bush to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who succeeded in leading America into a victory in a world war while at the same time revolutionizing its social and economic system, including by establishing the Social Security program.

According to the expectations of the GBII-as-FDR school of thought, Mr. Bush's legacy after leaving office would be a triumph in the war on terrorism, the transformation of the Middle East, and the weakening of the control of the federal government over the U.S. economy. Under Mr. Bush, the power of the American government would expand abroad, from Baghdad to Kabul, while continuing to retreat at home.

But political realignments necessitate more than just electoral victories, and reflect major changes in public attitudes toward political, economic, and social issues that sweep the entire body politic. That kind of change hasn't taken place under Bush II.

The political makeover of Mr. Bush from the "accidental president" – after all, he had failed to win the support of the majority of voters in 2000 – to a "war president" reflected the successful way in which he and his aides exploited the wave of post-9/11 American nationalism triggered by the images of death and destruction in New York and Washington, by creating the perception that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were somewhat linked.

The Bush administration was able to force Congress to provide the White House with sweeping powers to go to war and to tighten security at home, and energized the political base of the Republican party, including the powerful Christian Right – which helped Mr. Bush win the 2004 presidential race by a small majority.

At the same time, Mr. Bush and his allies has created deep political divisions in the country and has failed in co-opting traditional Democratic demographic groups, such as blacks, Hispanics, and Jews.

Now, it seems that the chickens are coming home to roost and that the war on terrorism that helped to elevate Mr. Bush into a war president is now turning him into a not-winning-a-war president. The devastating images of 9/11 have become a distant memory and have been replaced by the daily bloody pictures of the war in Iraq that keeps dragging on and on, without any indication that the United States and its allies are close to winning it.

Indeed, polls conducted by Washington Post-ABC News and the Associated Press-Ipsos make it clear that the American people are losing their patience with the war in Iraq and are blaming Mr. Bush for the mess there.

According to the Washington Post-ABC polls, for the first time since the war in Iraq began, more than half of the American public believe that the fight there has not made the United States safe. Nearly three-quarters of Americans say the number of casualties in Iraq is unacceptable, while two-thirds say the U.S. military is bogged down and nearly six in 10 say the war was not worth fighting.

The AP-Ipsos poll indicates that just 41 percent of Americans support Mr. Bush's handling of the war. Overall, 52 percent disapprove of Mr. Bush's job performance.

"Wars are political killers, and President George W. Bush faces that prospect," according to Nicholas Berry, director of the Foreign Policy Forum in Washington, who notes that the morass in Korea in 1952 shattered President Harry S. Truman's hopes for reelection, and he withdrew, while President Lyndon Johnson suffered the same fate in 1968 from the Vietnam quagmire. Although President Richard Nixon's downfall had domestic roots, his fight with Congress when he sought to bolster the sagging South Vietnamese regime contributed ammunition to his opponents.

One of the problems both Presidents Johnson and Nixon faced in their handling of the Vietnam war was the "credibility gap" between the expectations raised by Washington that there was a "light at the end of the tunnel" and the depressing reality on the ground in Southeast Asia. Mr. Berry points to a similar gulf between the current rhetoric of Mr. Bush and the reality in Iraq.

Hence Mr. Bush and Vice President Cheney have continued to paint a rosy picture about "progress" in Iraq. Speaking on April 12 to soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas, Mr. Bush stressed that the "people of Iraq no longer live in fear of being executed and left in mass graves," that "freedom is taking root in Iraq," and that "our success in Iraq will make America safer, for us and for future generations."

At a May 31 Rose Garden news conference, Mr. Bush said: "I am pleased that in less than a year's time, there's a democratically elected government in Iraq, there are thousands of Iraq soldiers trained and better equipped to fight for their own country, that our strategy is very clear. I'm pleased with the progress."

Mounting Iraq Woes

Just a day earlier, Mr. Cheney on CNN appeared even more optimistic. The insurgency, he said, was in its "last throes." But in Iraq, the trends point to another direction. Insurgent attacks, mainly car bombings, killed 80 U.S. soldiers and more than 700 Iraqis in May, and this is escalating daily.

Reports suggest that foreign fighters and suicide bombers are being recruited widely throughout the Islamic world and that they are infiltrating Iraq through Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, U.S. military commanders told a visiting congressional delegation in late May that U.S. training of an Iraqi military capable of handling security is at least two years away, and a recent report in the Washington Post concluded with very pessimistic observations about the training of the Iraqi forces.

At the same time, the failure on the part of the Shi'ite-Kurdish coalition to bring Sunni representatives into the government continues to raise concerns over the possibility that the tensions among the three groups will degenerate into a civil war.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney will probably continue to insist that the United States will soon "turn the corner" in Iraq, and the possible capture of leading insurgents and other developments could certainly create a sense of "progress." But even under the best-case scenario, no credible analysts expect the Americans will be able to withdraw their troops from Iraq soon.

In any case, the problems in Iraq are also weakening Mr. Bush's ability to promote his domestic and trade agenda, suggesting that if you live (politically) by a war, the chances are that you'll also die (politically) by the same war if it doesn't go as well as expected.

Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore. Visit his blog.

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