Bush prepares way for key Iraq assessment

He bucks up war's supporters with eye to keeping GOP senators from siding with antiwar Democrats.

Sept. 11 will have double significance this year: the sixth anniversary of the 2001 terror attacks and the likely start date for Senate testimony by the US's top military and diplomatic officials in Iraq.

The White House maintains that that's a coincidence of the calendar, given Congress's requirement for testimony before the administration's deadline of Sept. 15 to deliver its status report on Iraq. To critics of the Bush administration, the confluence adds a gratuitous extra jolt of politicization to a highly charged moment in the US's four-year-old war in Iraq.

Either way, the long-anticipated mid-September stock-taking on Iraq has spawned a multifront campaign of pro- and anti-war forces that will only intensify as the date approaches. In speeches this week and next to veterans' groups, President Bush appears determined both to buck up the remaining support he has for the war, largely among core Republican voters – and especially GOP members of Congress – and demonstrate that he understands the realities of a war that has not gone according to plan.

At the same time, conservative and liberal interest groups are ramping up multimillion-dollar media campaigns to influence public opinion as Congress prepares to debate the future of Mr. Bush's troop buildup in Iraq. In a tableau of both positive and negative developments there, the battle here for Bush could boil down to keeping enough Republican senators on his side to prevent the slim Democratic majority from gaining any traction in efforts to end the war.

"As long as Republicans in the Senate stay with him, he can do what he wants in Iraq," says Christopher Gelpi, a political scientist at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

In his speech on Wednesday, delivered at a convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, Mo., the president asserted that "this enemy will be defeated" in Iraq, and that an early withdrawal would be "devastating," making a historical analogy to the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Bush's additional comparison of the war on terror to the Vietnam War – particularly his assertion that both wars are similar as "ideological struggles" – ignited a passionate side debate over whether the president is drawing the correct historical lessons.

But in a more fundamental way, it will be extremely difficult for Bush to change the course of public debate, which appears to have hardened against his policy. Some polls this month have shown a boost in support for Bush's "surge" of troop levels in Iraq: A Gallup poll taken early this month showed 31 percent of Americans believe the surge is making the situation in Iraq better, up from 22 percent in early July.

This uptick was to be expected, political analysts say, as reports have come out showing signs of security improvements on the ground in some of Iraq's most violent areas.

An opinion piece in The New York Times last month by two scholars from the Brookings Institution in Washington citing progress after a visit to Iraq – noteworthy because the men are normally critical of the handling of the war – was seized upon by the administration as evidence that its approach was working.

But, says John Mueller, an expert on war and public opinion at Ohio State University, given that a majority of Americans continue to say that it was a mistake to send US troops to Iraq in the first place and that the benefits of winning the war do not outweigh the costs, the recent uptick in opinion is "irrelevant."

"In other words, if too many lives have already been lost, the fact that they're doing somewhat better in the war is not the key thing," says Dr. Mueller.

Furthermore, he adds, the basic outline of next month's progress report is already clear: continued bad news, with some good news. The top US commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, "will say roughly, 'We're making progress in some areas, but politics is still a big problem. We need another six months,' " says Mueller.

On Thursday, the administration was expected to release some of the bad news in advance, via a new national intelligence estimate containing doubts by US intelligence services that the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, can resolve sectarian differences in his country.

Top members of the Bush administration have long harbored doubts about Mr. Maliki's ability to bring together the necessary political forces and set the country on a path to stable rule. Earlier this week, Bush's seemingly tepid comments on Maliki led to speculation that he was intentionally distancing himself from the prime minister, but in his speech in Kansas City, he expressed support for Maliki, calling him a "good guy, a good man with a difficult job."

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