This Is Bush's War

The American public's initial euphoria about the war in Iraq quickly gave way to sober realism.

On Saturday, 62 percent of Americans said they thought the war was going "very well," according to a Gallup Poll. But in Monday-Tuesday polling—after Americans learned of brutal ground fighting, U.S. casualties, American prisoners of war, and friendly-fire incidents—respondents saying things were going "very well" had dropped to 34 percent.

Over the weekend, the proportion of Americans who thought the war would last more than three months jumped from 27 percent to 39 percent. And the percentage of those who expected the war to result in fewer than 100 U.S. casualties dropped from 46 percent to 35 percent.

Nevertheless, the home front seemed to be holding firm in support of the war. On Saturday, 74 percent of Americans said they supported going to war with Iraq. On Monday-Tuesday, that figure slipped only a bit—to 71 percent. The public was overwhelmingly confident (84 percent on Saturday, 74 percent in Monday-Tuesday polling) that the United States and its coalition partners were winning.

On what was that confidence based? Consider the evidence from U.S. wars over the past century. In World War I, the casualty rate for U.S. forces was one in 15; that is, one of every 15 soldiers who fought in that war was killed or wounded. The casualty rate for World War II was also one in 15. In the Korean War, the rate was one in 13. In Vietnam, the figure was back to one in 15. That is a remarkably steady casualty rate for very different wars.

The Persian Gulf War broke the pattern. In that war, the casualty rate was one in 1,500. Out of 1 million Americans sent to the Gulf, only 760 soldiers were killed or wounded.

What do Americans expect now in Iraq? According to Gallup, the public expects 100 to 300 U.S. casualties. That would be about the same casualty rate as for the Persian Gulf War. Is that an unreasonable expectation? After all, the United States is fighting on the same terrain against the same enemy as it was 12 years ago. And that enemy is weaker after 12 years of U.N. sanctions.

But this is a fight in the Iraqi homeland for a regime's survival, over territory much larger than Kuwait. Suppose the war in Iraq turns out to involve the kind of tough, protracted ground combat that the United States faced in two World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam—with a comparable casualty rate. How many U.S. casualties would result? About 17,000, a number that almost no Americans expect and that most would find unacceptable.

At its start, the war in Iraq was unusually controversial with the American public. A New York Times/CBS News poll, taken just after the beginning of the war, found a stark contrast between this war and the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

At the beginning of the 1991 war, 94 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of Democrats expressed support for President George H.W. Bush's handling of the war. That kind of consensus does not exist this time. After this war's first day, 93 percent of Republicans supported President George W. Bush's handling of the war. Yet only 50 percent of Democrats did.

That is an unusually wide partisan split at a war's outset. It took years for the Vietnam War to become that partisan. This war is already enmeshed in the red-state/blue-state division of American politics.

This is Bush's war. That is not a statement of contempt. Back in 1999, congressional Republicans were expressing a certain contempt when they called the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo "Clinton's war." Meaning, it's his war, not our war. But to call the campaign in Iraq "Bush's war" is a statement of political fact. The president has made this war his personal cause. He has staked his presidency on it.

It is impossible to make any reasonable political predictions without knowing the outcome of the war in Iraq—not ones about the fate of Bush's economic program, his judicial appointments, or even the 2004 Democratic nomination. Well, maybe one prediction: If Saddam Hussein is still in power a year from now, there is no way Bush can get re-elected, short of the Democrats' nominating the Rev. Al Sharpton for president.

Meanwhile, a lot of Democrats don't buy this war. They think it's based on a politically concocted argument. In particular, many Democrats don't see its connection to 9/11. There's no evidence that Saddam was involved in 9/11. And, in their view, it's not clear that his regime posed an immediate threat to the United States. What about his weapons of mass destruction? Democratic critics haven't seen evidence those weapons exist. And they find it suspicious that Bush didn't give the U.N. weapons inspectors the time they said they needed to determine whether Saddam had such weapons.

What would have to happen to bring Democrats on board in this war? Two things: They'd need to see pictures of weapons caches being uncovered by coalition forces in Iraq, thus proving the president was right about Saddam's deceitfulness. And they'd need to see pictures of Iraqis greeting the coalition forces as liberators, thus shutting off complaints that U.S. military action is universally viewed abroad as an act of aggression.