It was lemonade time for Pres. George W. Bush. Could he turn a tough week that left a bitter taste into a sweet drink? Boxed in by rising violence in Iraq and an unsparing review of the administration’s anti-terrorism program by the September 11 Commission, the president called a rare prime time news conference and underscored his assertion that war will bring democracy to Iraq, stabilize the Middle East, and vanquish terrorism.
The message sounded familiar, but this time, the president’s tone was grim. Gone was the triumphalism that led the president to land on an aircraft carrier displaying the banner “Mission Accomplished.” A new promise was also unveiled––if more troops are needed, more troops will be sent. The president made no direct mention of how to pay for the war, but the day before his speech, the administration floated a proposal to cut costs in the Section 8 housing program that provides rental assistance to low income households.
The president took to the nation’s prime time airwaves for only the third time in his administration. He knew he was not speaking to the one-third of the electorate that has vehemently opposed the war in Iraq, but, rather, the 55 to 70 percent of Americans who support the war to one degree or another.
Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, knows that he must address the same audience. Both candidates agree that there must be no failure of will, and terrorism must not win. In a Washington Post op ed article on April 13, Kerry outlined his views on a policy for conducting war in Iraq that in some respects tracked Bush’s speech.
Kerry’s disagreements with Bush emphasized leadership ability. Kerry said the president is not leadin well. U.S. efforts to prepare for Iraqis to assume sovereignty on June 30 have failed. As a result, the United Nations, by default, has the lead role. A U.N. envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, is apparently devising a plan in conjunction with the U.S.-controlled Iraqi Provisional Authority. In his op ed, Kerry also called on NATO to start training Iraqi troops and police at facilities outside of Iraq. Kerry doesn’t believe that NATO will place its troops in the line of fire. Kerry argues that he is better qualified to develop a political plan for ending the war than Bush.
So far, the U.S. presidential campaign is not revealing any strong disagreements between Bush and Kerry. As a result, events will play the leading role in determining who next occupies the White House.
Bush provided some of these benchmarks in his press conference. The widespread violence in Falluja and elsewhere was the work of only a few Iraqis; the majority support the United States and freedom, said Bush. A governing council must be established by June 30, the president said, also affirming that NATO will provide assistance.
One immediate test centers around the radical Muslim cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, who is a leader of the Iraqi resistance. Whether or not he surrenders and is tried by Iraqis is one key benchmark the president did not mention.
The stakes are high and Iran, an old enemy of the United States, has sent its foreign minister to help.
The question of violence is a thorny one. On the one hand it shows that Iraqis want the occupation to end, on the other it makes it much more difficult for a consensus to develop on an exit strategy. It would be far easier to negotiate troop withdrawals if Iraq were peaceful. Clearly, many Iraqis understand this and want the fighting to end. Presumably, this is what the administration means when it talks of enjoying the support of the Iraqi people.
Yet, the president made no mention of Iraqi dead – 800 have died in the last two weeks of combat, while U.S. fatalities are more than 80. His omission won’t hurt Bush’s standing in the United States, but it is sure to be noticed by the residents of the Middle East, many of whom watched the press conference on their own televisions.
Another problem is securing the supply lines needed by truck convoys that run the hundreds of miles from Kuwait to Iraq to carry vital supplies, both humanitarian and military. The routes have been attacked and civilian employees, many of whom work for Halliburton, Vice Pres. Dick Cheney’s former employer, hired to drive those trucks have been kidnapped.
International support for the coalition is slipping. Spain is leaving and so are troops from the Ukraine. Japan faces heavy pressure and may rethink its commitment. The leaders of Great Britain and Poland, with the two highest troop commitments after the U.S. deployment, are paying a price in the polls for supporting a war that their constituents strongly oppose.
Domestically, the lesson of the last few weeks is that political advertisements aren’t that important. The Bush campaign has already spent 40 to 50 million dollars on attack advertisements, which gave Bush an initially slight lead in public opinion surveys. Then in the midst of the fighting between April 3 and 7, Dick Morris, the former Clinton political consultant, reported that the president popularity fell by 9 points giving Kerry his biggest lead yet––six points.
What does this all mean? According to Morris, whose skills are so highly regarded that Democrats and Republicans hire him, “If Bush hangs on in Iraq, insisting on ‘nation building,’ he will leave public opinion behind. The resulting bitter alienation will cripple our ability to act against terror in other places, cost him the presidency, and probably make future intervention in Iraq impossible.”
One reason Kerry is not stressing his disagreement with Bush is that he doesn’t want to polarize the public, thus making a consensus about fighting terrorism impossible. But the past week suggests that whatever the candidates say, Americans are paying close attention to Iraq and will make up their own minds.