Political Pulse December 2006

The Price of Patience

When Americans feel bogged down in a war; they want to win or get out.
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Fourteen years ago, the American public fired President George H.W. Bush. Now it looks as if the nation wants him back.

Asked which Bush was the better president, Americans chose the father, hands down: 61 percent to 25 percent in a CNN poll by Opinion Research last month. The first President Bush did not go into Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War—and was widely accused of having failed to finish the job. Years later, he explained his reasoning. "We could have rolled into Baghdad. And in 48 hours, all hell would have broken loose and we would have been standing alone," the former president said in 1998. His son did go into Baghdad, and nearly four years later the United States is still there—with no easy way out.

What brought the father down was, famously, the stupid economy. Bush's job approval hit nearly 90 percent in the Gallup Poll after the Gulf War victory, but his public support had dropped to 34 percent by the time he lost re-election a year and a half later. The economy trumped Iraq. Now Iraq trumps the economy. "It's sort of like a game of paper covers rock," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution. "The paper of Iraq is just covering the rock of a pretty good economy right now. In 1992, it was the other way around."

Having exceeded his father's high rating after 9/11, the current President Bush dropped to 35 percent approval just before last month's midterm elections. That's about where his father was when the voters fired him. This year, Iraq was the biggest issue driving people's votes, according to a post-election poll by the Pew Research Center. But only about one in five voters say they think that either the president or the Democrats have a clear plan for Iraq.

What are the choices? When Americans feel bogged down in a war, they want to "win or get out." That was the common expression of frustration during the Vietnam War. According to the CNN poll, 58 percent of Americans think Iraq has become another Vietnam. They don't think the United States is winning; just 34 percent say it is. Nor do they believe the U.S. will win; 56 percent say it won't.

How about the question raised by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.? "Can we still win?" McCain's answer: "Yes, I believe we can." So does a small majority of Americans, 54 percent in the CNN poll. The feeling that the U.S. is capable of winning a war that it probably won't win was a prime source of the public's frustration in Vietnam, and is now in Iraq.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger should know. He recently gave his assessment of the prospects for "a clear military victory," telling a BBC interviewer: "I don't believe that is possible." The U.S. strategy in Iraq, he said, "has failed to achieve the objectives that were defined within a timeframe that our political process will support."

Are Americans impatient? President George W. Bush seems to think so. "We tend to want there to be instant success in the world," he said in Hanoi last month. "The task in Iraq is going to take a while." Impatient? The United States was in Vietnam for more than 10 years. The war in Iraq has already gone on longer than U.S. involvement in World War II.

If Americans don't think the United States will win in Iraq, are they ready to get out? Yes, but not immediately. Just one-third want to withdraw all U.S. troops now, according to the CNN poll. An additional 27 percent are ready to withdraw some troops. That means a total of 60 percent are in favor of withdrawing at least some troops immediately.

McCain insists that the United States can win if it sends more troops. Only 16 percent of Americans would support that.

Is there another option besides winning or getting out? Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, talks of stabilization: making it clear to Iraqis that the U.S. presence is not open-ended and that they have to make political compromises to preserve their country.

Americans are willing to be patient, as long as it's clear the U.S. is getting out.

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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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