Political Pulse January 2006

Confidence Gap

People seem to have a problem when the president talks about "victory" in Iraq.

President Bush, despite all of his speeches and press conferences about "victory" in Iraq, seems unable to break through one barrier. The problem isn't the American public's lack of confidence in U.S. forces. It's their lack of confidence in the Iraqis.

In his Oval Office address to the nation on December 18, Bush hailed the recent Iraqi election as a milestone, "a landmark day in the history of liberty." American people seem to agree. In the ABC News/Washington Post poll taken just before the president's speech, 60 percent of respondents said the United States is making significant progress toward restoring civil order in Iraq. And 65 percent said the U.S. is making significant progress toward establishing democratic government there.

But people seem to have a problem when Bush talks about "victory" in Iraq. In the first of his five recent Iraq speeches, on November 30 at the Naval Academy, Bush declared, "We will never accept anything less than complete victory." He released a National Security Council document called the "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq." It was part of a public-relations offensive based on the theory that Americans will support a war, even one with mounting casualties, as long as they think their leaders have a plan for victory.

So what do Americans think? The December 16-18 Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll asked people whether Bush "does or does not have a plan that will achieve victory for the United States in Iraq." Fifty-six percent said he doesn't. In the ABC News/Washington Post poll taken at the same time, 59 percent said the Bush administration "does not have a clear plan for handling the situation in Iraq."

Why don't people believe the president? Bush defined "victory" in his Naval Academy speech. "Victory will come," he told the midshipmen, "when the terrorists and Saddamists can no longer threaten Iraq's democracy, when the Iraqi security forces can provide for the safety of their own citizens, and when Iraq is not a safe haven for terrorists to plot new attacks on our nation."

Do Americans think that, in the next few years, Iraq will have a government that can withstand terrorists or Saddamists? They're not sure: 50 percent of respondents in the Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll said it was likely that the Iraqi government would survive, while 47 percent said it was unlikely.

Is it likely that Iraq's military and police will be able to ensure security in Iraq without U.S. assistance? Sixty-one percent of respondents didn't think so.

Is Iraq likely to be able to prevent terrorists from using its territory as a base of operations for planning attacks against the United States? Sixty-two percent said no.

Americans are confident about what Americans can do, but not about what Iraqis can do. For Bush, victory depends on what Iraqis can do. "We're working to build capable and effective Iraqi security forces," he said in Annapolis. "We're helping the Iraqis rebuild their infrastructure.... We're helping the Iraqis build a free society."

The president talks about a "process" in Iraq. "We will see ... the democratic process moving forward," he said in his Oval Office speech. But Americans aren't impressed by a "process." They want to see a leader, someone who embodies the hopes and aspirations of the Iraqi people, as Lech Walesa did for the people of Poland, Nelson Mandela did for South Africans, and Viktor Yushchenko did for Ukrainians. Or, to use a favorite Bush example, as George Washington did for Americans.

What Iraqi leader can unite the country and lead it forward? The election results do not look encouraging. Secular leaders like former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi did poorly. The early count appears to confirm the divisions in Iraq. The Shiite religious coalition, which likely won the most votes, could form a government with no significant role for the Sunni Arab minority. Sunnis, however, are unlikely to accept a minor role in a country they used to run. The United States has to pressure the new government to share power, even though resentment of Sunni domination under Saddam Hussein runs deep. Is there an Iraqi leader who can build a broad consensus? The American public doesn't see one.

Presented by

William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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