War Means High Risk for Bush
By Todd S. Purdum
New York Times
Sunday 02 March 2003
WASHINGTON -- IN the ashen aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush committed himself and the nation to a global fight against terrorism that he warned would be long, shadowy and unconventional ~W and whose outcome might not be known for years.
Now, with hundreds of thousands of American troops poised to fight Iraq, Mr. Bush stands on the apparent eve of a far more conventional and concrete conflict, one on which he has wagered not only his historical reputation but his immediate political future, for better or worse.
By tying his presidency so closely to the goal of ousting Saddam Hussein, Mr. Bush has complicated the United States's relationships with some of its oldest allies, and narrowed the range of options through which presidents can shape their political fate ~W first and foremost by subordinating many of his domestic objectives to a probable war. He is acutely aware of the seriousness of the moment.
"We meet here during a crucial period in the history of our nation, and of the civilized world," Mr. Bush told a sympathetic audience at the American Enterprise Institute last week. "Part of that history was written by others. The rest will be written by us."
In the modern presidency, "foreign policy is more likely to defeat than re-elect a president," said Allan J. Lichtman, a historian at American University, who cited the examples of Harry S. Truman enmeshed in Korea, Lyndon B. Johnson undone by Vietnam and Jimmy Carter stymied by the Iranian hostage crisis.
"Even some of the greatest foreign policy triumphs are no guarantee, so in strictly political terms, he's taking a great risk going to war in Iraq," Mr. Lichtman said. "His biggest danger is the economy. No incumbent president has ever been re-elected during an election-year recession, and that's one of the most potentially perilous effects of this war."
No one knows this better than President Bush. Will a war plant the seeds of a more peaceful, more democratic Middle East, as Mr. Bush contends, or inflame anti-American feeling and spark terrorist attacks throughout the Muslim world? Or both?
"Success is wonderful for everything, respect, power, influence, everything," said Senator Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama. "Failure, or getting bogged down, and you've got a very different problem. All the indications are they feel very, very confident."
At this point, Mr. Bush has left himself little choice. Public support for his handling of Iraq, and terrorism more broadly, remains high, and pollsters and politicians agree that those ratings will shoot even higher, at least in the short term, the moment bombs start falling on Baghdad. Still, public assessments of his handling of the economy and other domestic issues have dragged down his overall job approval ratings to just above 50 percent.
Whatever the outcome of the next round of debate in the United Nations Security Council, the worldwide skepticism about the wisdom of Mr. Bush's course means that any war with Iraq will be seen, above all, as his war. John Brady Kiesling, a career foreign service officer who last week resigned his post as political counselor at the American embassy in Athens to protest Mr. Bush's policy, made that point.
"We have begun to dismantle the largest and most effective web of international relationships the world has ever known," Mr. Kiesling wrote Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. "Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security."
Mr. Bush's position has been to seek support from the United Nations to enforce its own past resolutions against Iraq, but he has repeatedly said that he would act with whatever partners he can persuade to remove what he considers a grave threat to American security and world peace. Having staked out that ground so unequivocally, Mr. Bush will have to hold it.
"In terms of politics, it's probably highly profitable, with a rally round the flag," said Nelson W. Polsby, a professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley. "If you can keep pumping that up, you get a free pass with respect to almost everything else, and he's milking that for all it's worth."
As Mr. Bush knows all too well, even a swift military victory in the year before an election is no guarantee of success at the polls. On Aug. 12, 1991, still fresh from his triumph in the Persian Gulf and the end of the cold war, the first President Bush confided to his diary: "The stories keep saying I will be very hard to beat. The more we hear of this, the more worried I become. `The bigger they are, the harder they fall.' That sticks in my mind."
Within months, as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell recalled in his memoirs, President Bush's "Desert Storm adulation had melted like snow in the spring," and Bill Clinton, whom the president described that long ago August as "a very nice man," had the last laugh.
But Walter Dean Burnham, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, noted that the big difference between now and the end of the first Persian Gulf war is "that at that time, there was no perceived external threat to the United States," equivalent to the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I've argued since Sept. 11 that it all but assures Bush's re-election, because it implies a long struggle, one that is highly lethal," Professor Burnham said. "Until or unless something comes along that produces a credible story that this administration has simply screwed up, and that people have suffered or are threatened with suffering as a result of its actions, I don't see that changing. It would also have to be effectively exploited by whomever the Democrats nominate."
But Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, said: "The important political calculation for the White House is to what extent they are willing to prepare the country for difficult future consequences now, so those consequences don't come as an unpleasant surprise. And by and large, the Bush team has chosen not to do that. I don't think they've done anything to prepare the country for a very expensive reconstruction, a substantial impact on the economy, or even a substantial increased risk of terrorist reprisals."
Indeed, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul L. Wolfowitz drew sharp questioning from Democrats on Capitol Hill last week for declining to provide even a ballpark estimate of the potential cost of war, and the White House has steadfastly declined to ask Americans not in uniform for any sacrifice much greater than waiting in longer airport security lines.
Whatever happens in Iraq, the broader threat that Mr. Bush has outlined will endure, and even be emphasized periodically by Mr. Bush's own administration through the color-coded system of terror alerts that amount to overt and official warnings to be wary, if not actually afraid.
But Mr. Bush seldom shrinks from a fight, and he has an uncanny record of overcoming initial doubts. He is, in E.B. White's phrase about successful New Yorkers, "willing to be lucky."
"If we wait for threats to fully materialize," Mr. Bush said at West Point last year, "we will have waited too long."
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