Bush Faces Hurdles to Rallying Support on Iraq

Barring improvements in security, the president will struggle to reverse the erosion of backing for the war seen in recent polls, experts say.

By Ronald Brownstein

Los Angeles Times

June 23, 2005

WASHINGTON — President Bush launches a major effort this week to reinvigorate support for the war in Iraq, but he faces a fundamental question: Can his words about the conflict still move public opinion?

Faced with rising criticism of the war, Bush hopes to persuade Americans to stay the course in Iraq.

But many experts believe that events now enormously outweigh arguments in shaping U.S. attitudes about the conflict. That means that unless security in Iraq improves, Bush may find it extremely difficult to reverse the steady erosion of support for the war evident in recent public opinion polls.

"If you look historically at polling numbers on [extended] military operations — leaving aside the second World War, which had sustained high support — the long-term trend is deterioration," said Eric V. Larson, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corp. and author of a new study for the U.S. Army on public opinion and war.

"It is hard to imagine that long-term trend being reversed anytime in the immediate future [on Iraq], particularly based solely on rhetoric. "

After Bush's reelection last year, discussion about Iraq in Washington receded, as the White House and congressional Democrats focused primarily on the president's domestic agenda. But this spring's wave of bombings in Iraq is provoking a growing clamor on Capitol Hill.

Democrats remain divided on the war and uncertain how aggressively to challenge Bush.

But earlier this month, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) called the war "a grotesque mistake." And about 50 House liberals recently formed an "Out of Iraq Congressional Caucus."

On Tuesday, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) accused the administration of a "credibility chasm" in misrepresenting progress in the war and urged renewed efforts to secure more international assistance. On Wednesday, Senate Democrats met in an unusual caucus intended to begin developing a sharper party position on the war.

Most Republican lawmakers continue to support Bush on the conflict.

But in recent weeks, Bush has faced challenges from Republicans such as Rep. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, who has called for setting a date to begin withdrawing American troops, and Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who has accused the White House of being "completely disconnected from reality" in its assessments of conditions.

This restiveness forms a key part of the backdrop for Bush's new political offensive.

Today, the administration will dispatch Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and top military officials to defend the war before the House and Senate Armed Services committees.

On Friday, Bush will appear at the White House with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari. Next Tuesday, to mark the one-year anniversary of the installation of the interim Iraqi government, Bush plans a major speech on the war, possibly in prime time.

"We are making a concerted effort to have the president put into context what people are seeing," said one senior White House official, who requested anonymity when discussing Bush's strategy.

Larson, in his study on public opinion, concluded that two factors best predicted the level of public support for a military engagement: whether the public thought the U.S. had "important stakes" in the situation, and whether it believed the U.S. was making progress toward its goals.

White House officials say they do not expect Bush to announce new policies on Iraq. But he is likely to emphasize arguments that aim directly at the two keys Larson identified.

In an interview on MSNBC's "Hardball" this week, Karl Rove, Bush's chief political advisor, previewed the case that the president may make to persuade Americans they have a continuing stake in stabilizing Iraq.

"I read, like you, the newspapers and watch the television, and it is not a pleasant sight seeing people die," Rove said. "But having said that, that's not the real question. The question is, 'Is it in the American interest, will the world be safer, will the world be more peaceful if America and our coalition partners stand with the people of Iraq and move toward a democracy, or will we be better off if we turn tail and run?' "

Another Republican familiar with White House thinking said Bush would confront the "progress" issue by highlighting the continuing steps toward the writing of a constitution and election of a permanent Iraqi government.

"What's driving public opinion polls right now is the security situation," said the strategist, who requested anonymity when discussing White House matters. "But … part of our job is to make sure [Americans] take into account other metrics, including the political metric."

In this effort, though, the White House faces two large hurdles, analysts in both parties agree.

If Bush seems too upbeat while Americans are seeing almost daily carnage in Iraq, he could appear out of touch or disingenuous — inspiring more of the criticism that Biden and Hagel recently leveled.

The bigger risk is that ongoing violence in Iraq could wash away any gains the president makes with public opinion, the way waves wash away writing in the sand.

"People know he's a man of strong convictions, and they also believe that it's better to have an Iraqi democracy than not to have one," said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "But they judge everything based on performance."

Indeed, over the last two years, support for the war has spiked upward in most polls around distinctive events, such as the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003, and the Iraqi election in January.

But each of those gains eventually dissipated as the violence continued.

In CNN/USA Today/Gallup and ABC/Washington Post national surveys this month, about two-fifths of Americans said they thought the war was worth fighting. That's the lowest level of support either poll has recorded for the war. Nearly 60% in the Gallup survey also said they wanted to withdraw at least some American troops, the highest level recorded for that question.

The erosion of public support for the war since January's highly praised Iraqi election suggests that even continued political progress in Iraq, unless it prompts a reduction in violence, may not create lasting support for the mission.

Perhaps the biggest uncertainty is whether sustained public anxiety over the war will affect the president's policies.

White House officials insist that Bush will not change direction, even if his new effort fails to rally public support. Larson, the Rand researcher, said that support for Iraq was actually holding up better than he expected. He noted that America kept troops in Vietnam for five years after the war had lost majority support in polls.

And although the Democratic and Republican officials uneasy about the war are criticizing Bush more sharply, most have been reluctant to propose significant shifts in his policies, like setting a date to withdraw U.S. troops. Biden, for instance, condemned that idea this week.

"This is like 1968 or 1969, when the political elite has concluded this is, in fact, an unwinnable war but … has decided it cannot make the obvious call for withdrawing for fear of seeming weak," said Ivo Daalder, a former National Security Council aide to President Clinton.

"I don't think we are going to change policies in Iraq until someone puts on the table a changed policy in Iraq. But who are the ones who are going to do it?"