Social Studies May 2007

Staunch or Deluded? Bush Is Both

Where President Bush appears to be kidding himself is not about the military situation in Iraq but the political situation at home.

"Is He Resolute—or Delusional?" That was the question on the cover of the May 14 issue of U.S. News & World Report. Tough call, but I'm going with resolute and delusional. President Bush is resolute about Iraq, delusional about America.

Militarily, Bush's Iraq policy is desperate but hardly crazy. If a string of "enoughs" go right, it might work. By "surging" more troops into Baghdad, Bush hopes to reduce insurgent and sectarian violence enough to stabilize the military situation in Iraq and the political situation in Washington. That initial success might lend him enough momentum and public support to sustain the operation long enough to do the really difficult thing, which is to establish a government in Iraq that is competent enough, and broad-based enough, to make and enforce a nonsectarian peace. If the Iraqi government can establish itself in enough of the country, U.S. forces could come home without leaving a civil war or failed state behind.

Many experts say this is what the United States should have been doing years ago. Attempting it now is a long shot, but there is nothing delusional about playing the best card you have, which is what Bush is doing. Where he appears to be kidding himself is not about the military situation in Iraq but the political situation at home.

Even under the best-case military scenario, building a passably effective government and tolerably stable politics in Iraq will take time. How long? Many experts talk years, not months—and those experts prominently include America's "commanders on the ground," as Bush calls them.

Freed from captivity as Donald Rumsfeld's sock puppets, senior U.S. officers are performing valorous acts of candor on an almost daily basis. Last month, Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, warned that the endeavor "clearly is going to require enormous commitment and commitment over time." This month, Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch predicted a "decisive effect on enemy formations" by August or September but went on to say, "I don't see there will be significant progress on the government side between now and fall." He added: "Counterinsurgency operations that have been successful in the past took a minimum of nine years."

The generals were doing everything short of sending up fireworks to warn that Americans will not know by September whether Iraq can be secured enough so that U.S. forces can come home. Rather, Americans may know whether Iraq can be secured enough so that U.S. forces can productively stay in Iraq. If the surge works, the troops would resume what they were doing four years ago: building the government, rebuilding the country, and (hopefully) standing down as Iraqis stand up.

Bush is, in effect, asking for a do-over. It is a tough request to make, and audacious in light of the administration's performance the first time around; but Bush warns that the alternative is worse, because to fail in Iraq would be a disaster.

Here he runs into a problem. The public does indeed believe that failure in Iraq would be a disaster—for Iraq. But the public does not believe it would be a disaster for the United States. To the contrary: In an April CBS News poll, only 30 percent of respondents said that a withdrawal from Iraq would increase the threat of terrorism against the United States, while 59 percent said there would be no change and 8 percent said the threat would diminish. Other polls have been finding for the better part of two years that the public sees the Iraq war as making the United States no safer from terrorism. The public, in other words, views stabilizing Iraq as social work rather than security work.

In the past year, public opinion has tipped from expecting U.S. success in Iraq to expecting failure, but Bush's bigger problem is that the public has rejected his whole strategic vision. "By a nearly 2-to-1 margin," the Gallup Organization reported last month, "Americans say the benefits of winning the war in Iraq to the United States are not worth the costs the United States would have to bear in order to win it." Bush believes that the United States cannot afford to lose in Iraq; the public believes that the United States cannot afford to win.

Bush's conviction that the public is wrong draws sustenance from the fact that Republicans, unlike Democrats and independents, agree with him that the United States cannot afford to lose. Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California (San Diego), finds the Iraq campaign to be far and away the most partisan war in the history of polling, with Democrats' support for the war running 50 to 60 percentage points below Republicans'. "There's nothing even close," he says. Partisan divisions over earlier wars, from Korea through Kosovo and Afghanistan, were reliably less than 30 percentage points, usually in the range of 10 to 20 points, and less than 10 points for Vietnam. To an extent that is without modern precedent, and that may be without any precedent, Bush is fighting a one-party war.

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Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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