Believing what Bush believes about Iraq

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Anyone who caught news of President Bush last week might have noted his conviction when he said that if he didn't believe in success in Iraq, he wouldn't put US troops in harm's way. The question is, will he have the public support to get the job done?

Public support for the war, and expectations for a successful outcome, are at their lowest since the invasion three years ago, according to polls. It's not just the war that more Americans doubt, but the president himself - only 40 percent find Mr. Bush trustworthy, according to a survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

The president says he disregards polls, but he may eventually face an antiwar rebellion in Congress, where polls do matter. If Bush wants to keep the support of the significant number of Americans who still say US troops should continue in Iraq - and that could be critical to avoid an early pullout and its dangerous consequences - he must find a way to rebuild public trust.

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The president's recent series of Iraq speeches show a strong effort at rebuilding public confidence. After three years of a mostly sunny-side-up war assessment, with few frank admissions of mistakes, Bush is showing increased candor.

He's begun talking before politically mixed audiences, where he's fielding not just "softball" questions, but hardballs, too. His March 20 speech in Cleveland is a good example - and worth reading in its entirety at www.whitehouse.gov. He's frankly confessing to the toughness of the challenge in Iraq, and acknowledging that Americans aren't so sure anymore if this war is winnable. Such utterances, in which he identifies not just with rah-rah supporters but the growing ranks of skeptics, can help to restore his credibility.

So, too, can Bush's examples of strategy adjustments in Iraq - a sign that the White House is not as rigid as it seems. In the last week, he's told crowds - sometimes in great detail - how the administration has had to change its economic and military approaches.

The erosion of public support can be partly reversed by the president's candor and care in explaining his reasons for optimism. (Where others see civil war, for instance, he sees Iraqi political and religious leaders who looked into the abyss and stepped back.) But nothing can assist him more than progress on the ground. There, it's a race between the time it takes to set up an effective Iraqi government and security forces, and the time it takes for Americans to lose patience.

To build patience, the president's been emphasizing the democracies that emerged from World War II and the cold war. Regardless of why and how the US invaded Iraq, it's now in this fight for the long-term goal - for the day, perhaps decades from now, when Middle East democracy defeats what the president calls "Islamo- fascists."

Like Harry Truman, also low in the polls during the Korean War, Bush is in dogged pursuit of his vision. He must continue his effort to regain support, but Americans must also consider the ramifications of abandoning his democracy course in Iraq. Historians now think highly of Mr. Truman's resolve. And decades later, tens of thousands of US troops are still protecting South Korea.

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