WASHINGTON—When a spate of deadly bombings struck Baghdad late last month, President Bush called the attacks acts of desperation.
Less than three weeks later, it's Bush who is desperately looking for a strategy that will stabilize Iraq and turn around a postwar effort that even some of his political allies say has gone awry.
The seven-month effort to rebuild postwar Iraq reached a major turning point this week as Bush and his national security team sharply changed course. They accelerated their schedule for handing political power back to Iraqis, but many nettlesome details remain undecided.
They also launched a more aggressive military campaign against Iraqi insurgents, who are attacking and killing U.S. soldiers almost daily.
If the new strategy works, it could slowly pacify Iraq and allow reconstruction to begin in earnest.
If it fails, the Iraq mission could turn from disappointment to disaster, imperiling Bush's re-election prospects. Early optimism about the war has given way to growing disapproval of Bush's handling of the conflict and growing doubts about the likelihood of success.
A national Gallup Poll, conducted Nov. 3-5, found that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the war is going badly. About 54 percent disapprove of Bush's handling of it.
"People are fairly divided on why we got in, and there doesn't appear to be a great exit strategy. And what we thought was there wasn't there," said Lee Miringoff, director of the nonpartisan Marist Poll. The Marist Poll has tracked a 28 percent decline in public approval of Bush's handling of the war since April.
Bush's overall performance rating is also down sharply from his record 90 percent approval rating after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Now, slightly more than half of Americans—54 percent in the Gallup Poll and 53 percent in the November Marist poll—say they approve of his overall performance.
The mounting U.S. death toll, the escalating cost of war and the continuing chaos in Iraq threaten to turn an issue that was supposed to be Bush's strength into his biggest liability. It's no accident that the first political ad showing Bush in his "mission accomplished" flight suit was sponsored not by the Republican National Committee but by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
On the street, in coffee shops, on talk radio, the war is nudging out the economy as a top concern for voters.
"Iraq, I think, is the biggest issue on people's minds right now," said Chris Vance, the Republican Party chairman in Washington state. "People are wary. It's a volatile situation."
Bush's change of strategy this week may be more radical than it first appeared.
The president threw overboard the course that he and his aides had insisted for months was the only way to a stable Iraq: writing a new Iraqi constitution first, followed by nationwide elections. Instead, political power will be transferred to an interim Iraqi government of some type.
The change was prompted in part by the failure of the current 24-member Iraqi Governing Council to act effectively and by eroding Iraqi approval of the U.S. presence. A leaked CIA report concluded that Iraqis increasingly support resistance to the U.S. occupation.
Dan Bartlett, Bush's communications director, said the change in course was a case of "adapting to circumstances."
"The strategy remains the same: Let's give power and authority to the Iraqis as quickly as possible. Our tactics may have to respond to the situation on the ground," he said.
The White House effort to accelerate the transfer of power has left Bush open to charges that he is moving rashly to extricate himself from Iraq. The president attempted to dispel that image Friday, saying U.S. troops will remain until Iraq is peaceful and secure.
But finding the right balance between staying too long and leaving too quickly is tricky business. Even Iraqis are of two minds on the subject.
"People are frustrated. Patience is wearing thin. But what we found is they didn't want to have U.S. troops withdraw precipitously," said Gallup pollster Richard Burkholder, who directed a house-to-house poll in Baghdad last summer. "They have two fears. One is that we're going to stay too long, and one is that we're going to leave too soon."
Iraq analyst Anthony Cordesman, just returned from a 10-day trip around the country, said the success or failure of Bush's Iraq effort is "too uncertain to call."
"This is not going to be a smooth, happy transfer of power. It's going to be a constant effort at armed nation-building," said Cordesman, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Cordesman said the military's fight against the insurgents is going better than is being reported. U.S.-led forces, adapting to the attacks, are launching more numerous and effective raids, he said. But political reconstruction and U.S. aid programs have been less effective, he added.
Former ambassador David Ransom said that by next April or May, Bush could face multiple problems if the situation does not improve. Democrats will be criticizing him in the middle of an election campaign, he may have to ask Congress for more funds for the war, and the weather will be turning hot in Iraq again.
"Of course he's looking at the election," said Ransom, of the Middle East Institute. "Any president has to look at the election."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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