Difficulty of selling a long-term presence in Iraq

Bush's Baghdad surprise was a boost to morale - but the American occupation remains a PR minefield.

There is no doubt that George W. Bush's surprise visit to Baghdad on Thanksgiving Day was a public-relations triumph. Even the Democrats jockeying for his job concluded that it would be prudent to hold off on criticism for a day or two, and let the president's dramatic morale-boosting foray into the belly of the beast speak for itself.

But four days later, an air of uncertainty hangs once again over the United States' future in Iraq, and over how long the president can keep enough of the American public with him to proceed unflinchingly in his effort to transform that nation.

No new polls have come out yet on the Bush trip, but "for sure, there was a bump; you can almost count on that," says independent pollster John Zogby. The question is, "how long-lasting will it be?" For now, though, "this was a major coup, and you must give credit where credit is due," Mr. Zogby continues.

"Morale is a serious problem, and having the commander in chief appear there is huge.... [It] was planned perfectly, executed perfectly; it just absolutely looked great. And it played into two strengths that this president has: One is that Americans do give him high marks on leadership. And they also like him especially when he's the compassionate conservative - literally leaving his dinner table and serving dinner with the troops."

The longer term for Bush in Iraq - a man and a country with futures more linked than ever - is far murkier. He can't wing into Baghdad every time he feels morale needs a pickup, Democrats say. And as the US emerges from its deadliest month yet in Iraq since the war started in March, with a death toll of at least 79 troops, the Bush administration faces the challenge of keeping the American public on its side for the long haul.

Sunday morning's news focused on the latest deaths sustained by the US and its allies in Iraq over the weekend: seven Spanish intelligence agents, two Japanese diplomats, and two US soldiers killed in separate attacks. Just hours earlier, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the American commander in Iraq, had sought to portray an improving security landscape. He told reporters that attacks on Americans in Iraq had gone down by almost a third in the last two weeks - from an average of 35 a day to 22. Attacks on Iraqis had increased, he added, but even considering that, overall attacks by guerrillas had dropped.

The Bush administration pays considerable attention to public perception of its actions, and as the presidential campaign heats up - with the Greek chorus of Democratic criticism growing louder - pollsters' views will always be close at hand. One remedy for the administration has been to make sure the story carries a sense of forward motion, and is not just a daily litany of death and injury. Already, the US has pledged to reduce the number of American forces in Iraq next year and accelerate the transfer of power to the Iraqi people.

Pressure from the American public is only growing, says pollster Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. "I'm seeing a growing impatience with the situation," says Mr. Kull, who bases this assessment on a poll he did in mid- November, plus a new survey to be released on Wednesday. "When there are these fatalities, the tension is going to build up. It causes more people to pay attention, which is a net negative for the president."

In the mid-November poll, PIPA-Knowledge Networks found that 55 percent of Americans believe the US went to war with Iraq on the basis of incorrect assumptions. A minority of Americans (42 percent) said the president is honest, and most Americans believe Bush was determined to go to war regardless of the evidence.

But Americans are ready to stay the course. The PIPA poll showed only 15 percent favor withdrawing US troops, and 77 percent think the US must stay in Iraq until it has a stable government.

Kull points to the question of presidential honesty as central to Bush's support. In the PIPA poll, Kull reports, there was a 9 point increase in the public's readiness to say that the president stretched the truth on weapons of mass destruction.

"Now, majorities are saying they have doubts about his honesty," he says. "It may be that perceptions of his honesty could become the deciding factor in the outcome of the elections."

On the issue of support for US involvement in Iraq, Kull says that "casualties per se don't lead people to turn against the war or the president. They cause people to pay more attention and ask more questions, such as, Was the war really necessary?"

"If the benefit of the war is solid in people's minds, then [casualties] don't really cause a shift in attitudes."

Reminding Americans of why their soldiers are in Iraq was a big part of Bush's visit there on Thanksgiving. And at the very least, he did get the nation's attention.

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