Can Bush rally US public?

Three years into the Iraq war, the president intensifies efforts to boost Americans' resolve.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Preemption was the name of the game in President Bush's first-term foreign policy: Undo Iraqi President Saddam Hussein before he harms the United States. Now, with the three-year mark for the start of the Iraq war coming this Sunday, Mr. Bush has launched another preemptive campaign - to answer the war's critics before the media flood of anniversary coverage.

In a series of speeches that began Monday, Bush is seeking again to lay out a "strategy for victory" in Iraq that the White House hopes will rebuild US public support for the effort after the recent wave of sectarian violence. Polling data have not been promising: 80 percent of Americans believe Iraq is heading toward civil war, and 52 percent say it's time to start pulling out, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Bush did not lay out a timetable for withdrawal in his first speech, which focused on security, but he did set a key goal for the first time - that by the end of this year, Iraqi forces will control more territory than the US-led coalition. He also announced a beefed-up effort to combat "improvised explosive devices," or IEDs, the roadside bombs that have terrorized both Iraqis and coalition forces. A key question hangs over the president's public-relations offensive: Are Americans who are skeptical or flat-out opposed to the Iraq war paying attention to Bush's arguments anymore, or is he just preaching to the converted?

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Last December, during his previous series of speeches on Iraq war strategy, Bush succeeded in halting a year-long slide in opinion polls. But the atmospherics were somewhat different. Iraq had just held elections, a tangible sign of progress that Americans noticed. Three months later, Iraqis are still struggling to form a government.

"His speechmaking may have helped a little bit toward the end of last year, but there were also elections," says John Mueller, an expert on war and US public opinion at Ohio State University. "Now [the polls] are back down to where they were before. So even if you do get an upward blip, the reality sort of sinks back in."

Another change from December is the growing chorus of conservatives - including some of the "neoconservative" variety, who had long pushed for preemptive action against Iraq - now arguing that the Iraq war is a failure and that it's time for the US to get out. Former neocon Francis Fukuyama, author of a new book highly critical of Bush's handling of Iraq, writes: "By invading Iraq, the Bush administration created a self-fulfilling prophecy: Iraq has now replaced Afghanistan as a magnet, a training ground and an operational basis for jihadists, with plenty of American targets to shoot at."

Most Americans won't read Mr. Fukuyama, but this turn in elite opinion - echoed by columnists George Will and Andrew Sullivan - in a way represents a canary in a coal mine, and a danger that more Republicans in Congress could start to turn against the Iraq war as the midterm elections draw closer, analysts say. Even Richard Perle, one of Washington's best-known neocons, is stating publicly that the administration "got the war right and the aftermath wrong."

This notion that the decision to go to war with Iraq had merit is still reflected among a significant portion of US public opinion. In the recent Washington Post poll, 42 percent of Americans responded positively to this question: "All in all, considering the costs to the United States versus the benefits to the United States, do you think the war with Iraq was worth fighting, or not?"

Professor Mueller says he's been impressed since the beginning of the war that support has been as high as it has been, particularly after the first couple of months. Part of that is due to Americans' longstanding desire to see Mr. Hussein ousted in Iraq. There's also the link to the war on terror that Bush pushed hard early on, though he later acknowledged that Iraq played no direct role in the 9/11 attacks.

Still, Mueller notes, Bush's support is much lower than it was for the president during the Vietnam War, at comparable levels of casualties. "When we reached 1,800 deaths [of US forces] in Iraq, the support level was about the same as about 18,000 deaths in Vietnam," he says.

The reality for Bush, say pollsters, is that so much lies beyond his control. Events on the ground will sway the public, while the president's words can have only marginal impact, they say.

"He can rally the faithful a little bit, but I don't know that he'll rally the middle ground people," says Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon polling. "People want to stand behind their country and government when they can, but I think they're just looking for something positive out of Iraq, and they're not getting it from the media."

In Monday's speech at George Washington University before a friendly audience - the Foundation for Defense of Democracies - Bush sought to convey progress in Iraq through a favorite rhetorical technique: the recitation of statistics. He reported that the number of Iraqi battalions in "the fight against the enemy" had increased to more than 130, with more than 60 taking the lead. That was up from more than 120 last year.

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