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Support eroding for Bush on Iraq

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 9, 2004


As violence and US casualties mount in Iraq, President Bush is facing a precarious political situation at home - and a potentially critical moment in the presidential campaign.

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Current polls suggest that public opinion on the conflict could be approaching a tipping point. While Americans have always been divided over the war, a majority has consistently held that the US made the right decision in deposing Saddam Hussein. But some polls now find a majority disapproving of Mr. Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq, and, according to a recent Pew survey, a sizable margin believes the administration does not have a plan to bring the conflict to a successful conclusion. The number of Americans calling for the troops to come home is rising, with just a bare majority now favoring keeping US troops in the region.

Bush has warned all along that the mission in Iraq would be long and difficult. He has also stressed that Iraq is a central front in the war on terror, and that success there is integral to America's safety - a view that has been key to maintaining public resolve.

But the president's decision to go to war has come under increasing fire in recent weeks, with officials such as former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke charging that the effort in Iraq has actually undermined the war on terror.

As the situation on the ground has deteriorated, some Republicans, such as Sen. Richard Lugar, are questioning the administration's plan for turning over power to Iraqis, while Democrats such as Sen. Ted Kennedy are comparing the situation to Vietnam.

If unrest continues, public support for the mission could quickly crumble - and the political consequences for Bush could be severe.

"Opinion is very fluid right now," says Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Report. "There's a sense that things are perhaps spinning out of control - and that's a very dangerous perception."

A changing framework

White House allies say the current spate of violence in Iraq was to be expected as the June 30 deadline for transition of power approached, with angry minorities trying to thwart the launch of a democracy. They also say that the political landscape here will be affected much more by that pivotal event than by the various ups and downs of preceding months.

"Certainly, the news that has been coming out of Iraq has been disconcerting, and it's going to impact how people are thinking," says David Winston, a Republican pollster. "But, ultimately, the way they're going to judge this is by how the transition occurs."

The situation is markedly different from Vietnam, he adds, because Americans see the Iraq effort as part of the overall war against terrorism - and therefore feel they have a greater stake in the outcome. "Because of 9/11, this is not an abstraction. We can be attacked on our own soil, and that has created a very different context in terms of how we view things overseas."

But others argue that the Vietnam threat - the spread of communism - was actually more frightening to Americans than the threat posed by Iraq, particularly given the fact that no link has been established between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have been found.

To a San Francisco fireman passing through Chicago's O'Hare airport, this is another Vietnam. Buying a newspaper from one of the vending boxes that line the terminal, some with inch-high headlines on the newest battles in Fallujah, this Democrat in a blue work shirt says the war "was falling apart before it even got started." People are dying for no reason, he continues, "and I suspect whoever replaces Saddam Hussein will be as bad or worse. We have no right being there."

'Doing what we should be'