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The War Comes Home

12 minute read
Karen Tumulty/Washiington

It had been a grueling day for George Bush. He stood side by side with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the White House, defending their rationale for going into Iraq–just as they had done so urgently last fall. Only this time they were trying to justify why it did not turn out quite as they had predicted. Bush headed to Texas that evening, and he took with him on Air Force One half a dozen House members from Texas, inviting them to join him at the front of the plane. A visit that was supposed to last 15 minutes stretched into an hour and a half. With his dogs wandering the cabin and White House chief of staff Andrew Card taking notes, Bush listened as his visitors explained how Americans beyond the capital were digesting the events in Iraq. They talked, recalled Representative Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, about “how it’s very easy to get support for a pure military operation, but it’s a lot more difficult when you’re peacekeeping and rooting out the terrorists.” This seemed to confirm what the President had privately been telling his staff for days. He had had it with the second-guessing, the postwar revisionists, the nitpicking over a single sentence that he had uttered six months earlier. Bush has been arguing that it is time to go on the offensive, or people will forget why America went to Iraq in the first place.

Like the M1 Abrams tank that performed so well in Iraq, Bush does best when moving forward. But he was facing guerrilla attacks last week on both his reasoning for going to war and lack of preparation for the peace. “He is tired of the weed whacking and the process stories,” a senior official said of the President. But Bush’s problem is bigger than weed whacking. In the latest TIME/CNN poll, Bush’s job-approval rating has dropped to 55%, where it stood before 9/11–just barely above his low of 53% in January during the anguished national debate about whether to go to war in the first place. Bush’s advisers knew all along that his postwar poll numbers could not hold, but as it has happened, the effect has been to force the President–and the nation–into a kind of moral time warp: six months after Bush addressed the nation and argued for war and three months after he declared major combat operations ended, he was making the case all over again.

Americans’ uncertainties about Iraq go far beyond the question of whether Bush used shaky intelligence in his State of the Union address last January. What bothers people is what they see happening day after day on the ground: their military men and women under siege, a casualty count that exceeds the toll of the first Gulf War, anti-Americanism in a land where they had been told our forces would be greeted like heroes, costs reaching a billion dollars a week and going up, some troops homesick and disillusioned, their spouses and parents having no idea when they will see their loved ones again–and no end in sight to any of it. At a gate to a 3rd Infantry Division base near Fallujah last week, Sergeant Michael Baroni sat on a tank and dreamed of drinking a glass of fresh milk. After 10 months in the Middle East, he says, “I just want to get out of this country, which, by the way, the Iraqis can have.”

Although 61% of Americans still say the U.S. was right to go to war with Saddam Hussein–a percentage that has slipped only slightly–the number of those who approve of the current military policy in Iraq has plummeted 15 percentage points since March, to 55%. And just as U.S. officials are speaking more frankly about the fact that the nation faces a prolonged, intense engagement there, nearly half of Americans, 45%, view the war as not being worth the toll it has taken in American lives and other costs. “It’s not the justification for the war” that bothers people, says Democratic Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana. “It’s the growing fear of quagmire after the war. The American people have more patience and resilience than world opinion and some of our elites give them credit for, but it’s not endless.” And lawmakers of both parties say this anxiety and frustration has become particularly pronounced in the past few weeks. “In this kind of climate, it’s hard to measure progress. In the war, we knew we were 50 miles from Baghdad, 25 miles, we’d captured Baghdad. This is very, very different,” says Republican Congressman Peter Hoekstra of Michigan.

Mary Holder, 53, owner of a pool hall in Dickinson, Texas, voted for Bush three years ago. She’s not so sure she will again. “A lot depends on what happens between now and the election,” she says. “It doesn’t matter to me that we have not found weapons of mass destruction. What matters to me is that our boys are still getting killed. I don’t want this turning into another Vietnam where we dump truckloads of money and lives.” The President’s standing has dropped with nearly every group, but his fall is particularly steep among the young–people like Meg Brohn, 23, of Mount Clemens, Mich., and her sister Caroline, 20. They supported the war, but they can’t help noticing how many of those dying are around their age, and that has brought it home to them in a vivid and dismaying way. “When our troops are being so viciously attacked, it’s obvious the Iraqis don’t want us over there,” says Caroline. Her sister says, “I don’t think we’ll ever be able to declare victory.”

White House officials are confident that Bush can weather the immediate controversy over how that 16-word sentence made it into the State of the Union speech. Trust is the touchstone, the sine qua non of the Bush presidency. “People just don’t think this President is a liar,” says an adviser. In the poll, slightly more than half of Americans say they regard Bush as a more truthful President than most. Whatever doubts they have about how the war was sold and how it’s turning out, they remain reluctant to pin those feelings on their Commander in Chief. “I don’t want to think my President lied,” says Claudia Grabowski, 40, a medical technician from Sterling Heights, Mich. “Maybe he was given false information.” But if it turns out that the straight truth was not driving Bush’s decisions then, how can Americans be sure he’s making the right ones now?

And that is where the danger lies for the Bush presidency. While continued turmoil in Iraq could begin to erode the public’s faith in the President’s honesty, it could also do something equally damaging: resurrect the public’s pre-9/11 doubts about his competence. Not so long ago, voters seemed to believe that Bush’s success in war meant he could lick any problem, from the economy to healthcare reform. But here’s the flip side: qualms about his management of postwar Iraq could turn into doubts about all his policies. By nearly 2 to 1, Americans still say the issues closest to home will matter most when they cast their vote for President next year. And according to the TIME/CNN poll, a growing number of Americans question not only how Bush is handling Iraq but also how he is managing nearly every other important issue, from the economy to terrorism to unemployment.

What worries Republicans in the short run is how the criticism has thrown the White House off its game. The normally consistent and disciplined p.r. machine has stepped in and out of explanations, depending on the day and the person making them. So bollixed up did Bush get last week that at one point he suggested that had Saddam allowed inspectors in his country–something, of course, that the Iraqi dictator had done with great fanfare–there would have been no need for the conflict. And Bush’s new press secretary, Scott McClellan, said no fewer than nine times in a briefing last week that the Administration had fully “addressed” the questions surrounding Bush’s assertion that Saddam had tried to obtain yellowcake uranium from Africa. But the questions kept coming.

Bush’s challenge right now is difficult and twofold: he must remind Americans of the U.S.’s lofty purpose in Iraq while getting them to accept the gritty reality on the ground. And only if they re-embrace the former will they reconcile themselves to the latter. So it was fortuitous for him that two men came to the rescue last week and laid the groundwork for this complicated message. On the higher stratum, Blair touched down in Washington for six hours and gave a stirring address to Congress that portrayed the Iraq campaign as nothing short of a call to greatness for a nation whose power had never before been “so necessary or so misunderstood.” Though Blair’s political survival hangs in the balance in his country, this one is so smitten with the British leader that Congress interrupted him with applause 31 times in a 35-minute speech. Some in the House chamber wiped away tears as Blair told them, “Destiny put you in this place in history, in this moment in time.” And if it turns out that he and Bush misjudged Saddam’s capabilities? “If we are wrong, we will have destroyed a threat that, at its least, is responsible for inhuman carnage and suffering,” Blair declared. “That is something I am confident history will forgive.”

While Blair aimed at the heavens, Army General John Abizaid, the new head of U.S. Central Command, was squarely focused on the ground. In his first Pentagon briefing since taking over the Iraq operation, Abizaid acknowledged the obvious and said the enemy was waging a “classical guerrilla-type campaign.” Using the very images that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has resisted–and ones that bring echoes of Vietnam–Abizaid bluntly prepared the public for an occupation that will be neither pretty nor short. According to Abizaid, the resistance that Rumsfeld had previously dismissed as a haphazard collection of “dead-enders” has in fact been coordinated into regional cells that might even be connected across the country. “It is getting more organized,” Abizaid said ominously, “and it is learning.”

At the same time, another salvo in the Administration’s candor campaign was turning into a case of friendly fire. The Administration’s release of excerpts from the classified “National Intelligence Estimate,” the government’s most definitive report on Iraq’s weapons programs, was designed to bolster its case that the threat from Saddam was genuine. But it seemed to raise more questions than it answered. Indeed, the document laid bare the fact that the intelligence community was not unanimous. The White House described the document as the consensus view of “most” of the six U.S. intelligence agencies, but the objections contained within were against key points used to make the case for war. What of the claim that Iraq was pursuing yellowcake uranium in Africa? “Highly dubious,” was the State Department’s view. The document also served to remind that on some other key points, the intelligence community had “low confidence” that Saddam would use weapons of mass destruction or provide them to al-Qaeda.

The yellowcake flap has brought increasingly pointed assaults on Bush’s credibility from the emboldened Democrats who are vying to replace him come January 2005. “Mr. President, the time for evasiveness, secrecy, contradictory statements and ducking responsibility is over,” said former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. Florida Senator Bob Graham went so far as to suggest that if Bush took the nation to war “under false pretenses,” it would constitute a more serious offense than the one that got Bill Clinton impeached.

That’s a dangerous tack for the Democrats. Says an adviser to one of the candidates: “It’s important to be measured. People do not want to see this stuff politicized. They think it’s too important.” In fact, the TIME/CNN poll shows that fully 65% of voters regard the Democratic attacks on Bush’s handling of Iraq to be the scoring of political points. “The Democrats are just doing what the Republicans would do if there were a Democrat in the White House,” says Art Ramirez, 40, an independent voter in Vista, Calif. “It’s called playing politics.” At the same time, Republicans know they shouldn’t bank on the Democrats’ impulse to overreach when it comes to Bush. “Truth be told, if they would back off, [the backlash] would just happen,” says a G.O.P. strategist.

The White House offensive seems based on the idea that if you take care of the big issues, the small ones will take care of themselves. “If this debate shifts to ‘Did we do the right thing in Iraq?’ we are more than happy to have the debate,” says a senior Administration official. Vice President Dick Cheney urged House Republicans to mount a more vigorous defense of Bush, and the White House sent lawmakers a list of talking points titled “Why Saddam Hussein Was a Grave and Gathering Danger.” But officials concede that their trump card would be to produce some surefire evidence that Iraq is moving toward becoming the stable, peaceful and friendly place they promised it would be. “This is more answered by successes or changes in the landscape in Iraq–an arrest or some movement or change,” says one. Nearly three months after his photo-op landing on an aircraft carrier, Bush now needs to convince Americans once again that “mission accomplished” means more than the words that were stenciled on the banner behind him that day. –With reporting by John F. Dickerson and Eric Roston/Washington, Deborah Fowler/Houston, Simon Robinson/Fallujah, Maggie Sieger/Detroit and Jill Underwood/San Diego

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