Tangled Up in His Flight Suit
By Howard Fineman
Wednesday 27 August 2003
For Bush, war equals good politics so long as the war s going well, that is.
Sept. 1 issue George W. Bush was raising money last week in the Pacific Northwest, where there are too many greens, Democrats and anti-everything activists to suit him. Do you have all those protesters lined up to see me? he jokingly asked Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon.
Sure enough, they lined Portland streets to protest the war in Iraq. But even when he returned to the friendliest of territory his ranch in Crawford, Texas the president couldn t escape the increasingly fractious politics of the war. Families of military reservists have become distraught over unexpectedly lengthy deployments in Iraq and angry over what they consider unnecessarily risky rules of engagement there. Some of them planned to gather last weekend for a rally on Crawford s football field. My husband said they re making him a sitting duck, said Candance Robison, readying herself for the 2 -hour drive from her home in Krum, Texas. The slogan for the rally summarized her goal: BRING THEM HOME NOW!
When the president landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln four months ago and declared victory in Iraq s major combat operations, he dressed in the manner of a conquering hero. But after the U.N. bombing in Baghdad, the question is whether that flight suit could become a political straitjacket. In a NEWSWEEK Poll, voters still think the president is doing a good job overall and still believe by a 2-1 margin that invading Iraq was the right thing to do. But there is soggy ground beneath those numbers. Voters are growing antsy about the war s financial costs (and see it weakening the American economy), are dubious about its value in reducing terrorism and are eager for the United Nations to take over. For the first time since 9/11, people say they d rather elect someone other than Bush in 2004. Already poorly regarded as an economic steward, he can t afford much damage to the image of commander in chief that his handlers hope will bring victory in 04. He won t flinch in Iraq, said a friend who spent time with him recently. But he is very aware of the political risks.
Risks rise with casualty figures. Nearly as many Americans have died in Iraq since the president s victory declaration as before it. The number of wounded a far-less-discussed figure is above 1,000. Just as crucial politically, the Pentagon s heavy dependence on reservists and National Guard troops is causing concern in some of the very places the South and Plains states where the president is most popular. Most military police and civil action officers in Iraq are drawn from these ranks, says Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Technically, the Pentagon isn t abusing the rules, and these folks want to do their duty, he says. But they didn t expect to be out there this long or to be so deeply involved. Their families strangers to the take-it-as-it-comes, full-time military culture often are shocked by the e-mails they are getting from the front lines in Iraq. If you re a military commander, e-mail is the worst thing ever invented, says Hagel.
For now, Bush has some room to maneuver politically. Republicans are overwhelmingly with him on Iraq. Consultant Craig Shirley, who surveys conservative opinion on talk radio, cable TV and the Web, says he has not picked up a neo-isolationist disturbance in The Force. Some Republicans want the president to dispatch more American troops to Iraq, but there is no political risk to him in saying no. The Democrats are as divided and confused as ever. Some can glory in saying I told you so about the dangers and complexities of Iraq. They include Howard Dean, the antiwar insurgent who is now the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Wesley Clark, the retired NATO commander who seems destined to enter the race next month. But neither advocates an immediate withdrawal. Indeed, they want more troops, too sent in under U.N. auspices. Cutting and running is not an option, says Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh. We have to stay there and get it right.
Meanwhile, Bush is digging in politically for the long haul. To sell the war initially, he and his neocon advisers made the creation of a New Iraq sound easy. Now they re saying it s going to be hard, while arguing that it s even more important than we realized. In a speech to the American Legion in St. Louis, the president will put Iraq in the larger context of the war between civilization and evil, says a top White House aide. Those who oppose the war take a pacifist view, he says, and we re willing to have that debate. Translation: bring em on. A political guerrilla war may be winnable for Bush, but it will be costly and it could get bloody.
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