WASHINGTON—Hours after U.S. and coalition troops extracted Saddam Hussein from a bunker on the outskirts of Tikrit, President Bush proclaimed that his capture signaled a bright new day for Iraq.
"A dark and painful era is over," Bush said in a nationally televised address on Dec. 14, 2003. "A hopeful day has arrived. All Iraqis can now come together and reject violence and build a new Iraq."
Saddam's capture gave Bush a temporary boost in the polls but little else. Iraq has spiraled into sectarian violence that many consider a civil war, and the U.S. military death toll is nearing 3,000.
Saddam's execution will do little or nothing to bolster Bush's paltry public approval ratings—currently in the mid-30s—or to improve a devolving security situation in Iraq, several analysts and pollsters say.
"Anytime the White House uses the term `milestone' it's a stone around the president's neck," said Ray Tanter, a national security professor at Georgetown University and a National Security Council member under President Reagan. "You do not change the situation in Iraq by capturing Saddam, convicting Saddam and executing Saddam. Nothing changes the insurgency except a political deal. The president may get a little bump from this, but it will quickly go down because the situation on the ground hasn't changed."
Bush is weighing his options in Iraq and is preparing to deliver a major speech on what he views as a way forward there. White House officials have been close-mouthed about the president's thinking. But Bush acknowledged earlier this month that one thing he's considering is sending up to 30,000 more U.S. troops to try to secure Baghdad.
Bush's deliberations come after Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives and the Senate to Democrats for the first time since 1994 in midterm elections. The elections were largely viewed as a referendum on the president's handling of the war.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. White House and Republican campaign officials had banked on Bush's stature as commander in chief, his stewardship of the war on terror, and his vow to bring Saddam and Osama bin Laden to justice to help keep them in power.
Bin Laden has proved elusive. But Saddam's capture on Dec. 13, 2003, gave the White House what it desperately needed: a tangible visual of U.S. progress in Iraq.
Bush enjoyed a big political bounce from Saddam's capture as cable networks repeatedly showed footage of the docile, unkempt former Iraqi president having his dental work examined by his captors. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted days after Saddam's capture showed Bush's approval rating surging from 56 percent to 63 percent.
The president's popularity has waned ever since, though, sabotaged in part by the escalating insurgent violence and growing body count in Iraq. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey taken Dec. 11-14—the three-year anniversary of Saddam's capture—had Bush's approval rating at 35 percent.
Pollster John Zogby doubted Friday that Bush would get the same benefit from Saddam's execution that he got from his capture.
"I don't see his numbers going up at all unless there's a drastic turnaround in Iraq on the ground," Zogby said. "He's really out of bounces because he's lost Republicans and conservatives. Executing Saddam Hussein is not sufficient. It's all about the war in Iraq."
Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political science professor, said Americans aren't focusing on Saddam's execution because they've soured on Bush's handling of the war.
"Under normal circumstances, if there was a national consensus to go to war with Iraq, this would mean something," he said. "But there were various rationales for why we went in, from weapons of mass destruction to `he tried to kill my father.' Because the rationale for going to war unraveled and the violence escalated, Bush isn't going to get the bounce from Saddam's execution that he thought he would."
Some believe Saddam's execution could do Bush political harm if it sparks more sectarian violence at a time when the president is preparing to embark on a new effort to try to secure Iraq.
"Things could get a little crazier in Iraq short term, and that's no help as the president tries to find a way forward in Iraq," said Frederick Barton, a member of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel that authored a report on how to proceed in Iraq. "I can only see this as a source of agitation. It will cause celebration in some parts of the country and be seen as a symbol of oppression in other parts."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.