Bush stakes future on stable Iraq

In casting Iraq as the 'central front' in the war on terror, Bush has acknowledged how difficult that war could be.

The broad and costly effort to build democracy in Iraq, combined with a growing number of challenges abroad, is presenting the American public with the greatest test of its patience and commitment to foreign engagements in decades - and one that will almost certainly shape the nation's political landscape over the course of the next year and beyond.

By casting Iraq as the "central front" in the war on terror, President Bush has sharply raised the stakes both for success in that effort, and for his own presidency.

On the one hand, tying stability in Iraq to the safety of Americans may help Mr. Bush to justify the escalating cost of the operation, both in lives and dollars. Americans have shown a general willingness to back the president on matters of national security ever since 9/11 - an inclination that may be reinforced by the upcoming anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

But Bush is also asking the public to accept a daunting vision of a long and dangerous occupation, the sort of endeavor Americans have shied away from ever since the days of Vietnam. How the public reacts to this ambitious request - and how much progress is made in Iraq between now and the 2004 election - may well determine the president's political fate.

In many ways, Bush is staking his presidency on Iraq, says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio. "The risks are simply that the matters on the ground won't work out as anticipated," he says. "The situation is highly unpredictable: Six months from now, we may be saying, boy he is a one-term president. Or we might be saying, he's cruising to reelection."

In many ways, Professor Green points out, the president's speech on Sunday reflects that events in Iraq have already not gone as anticipated. Certainly, Bush has come under increasing fire from Democrats and even some Republicans lately for not seeming to have a plan for postwar Iraq and for failing to get the necessary international support beforehand, leaving the US to assume almost all of the burden in the reconstruction effort. In that respect, Bush's decision to ask the United Nations to assume a greater role marks a significant shift from the administration's earlier go-it-alone approach.

"The effort now to bring the UN in, which we must do in order to get some allied assistance on the ground, also has to be seen as a tacit admission of their miscalculation at the outset," says Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University.

The president also seemed to be responding to charges that he had failed to level with the American people about the costs, saying he would be asking Congress for $87 billion, on top of the $79 billion it approved in April.

While Sunday's speech may reassure voters that the president does have a plan, the ongoing problems in Iraq, combined with other challenges abroad ranging from North Korea to the unraveling roadmap in the Middle East, may offer Democrats an opening to challenge Bush on foreign policy. "People sense that he's lost his way in Iraq," says Democratic pollster Jeremy Rosner. "Foreign policy - which everyone had thought would be Bush's greatest strength - may now become a weakness."

Certainly the Democratic presidential candidates have been hammering at Bush's Iraq policy, saying the president alienated allies going in.

There are signs the attacks may be taking hold. Overall, Bush's approval ratings have declined in recent weeks: a new Zogby poll finds the president with just 45 percent approval. Much of this stems from the public's frustration over jobs and the economy. But while in the past, Bush's poor performance on economic matters has been largely propped up by high marks for his handling of foreign affairs, growing doubts about the situation in Iraq are now contributing to a decline.

"The American people are losing patience on a number of fronts," says pollster John Zogby.

Still, polls also show that a majority of Americans continues to believe the US did the right thing in going into Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein. And Democrats may ultimately have trouble carving out a distinct position from the president on Iraq, since Bush is now pursuing more international involvement. Moreover, at this point, even antiwar candidates such as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean are not advocating pulling out.

Despite the administration's recent shift in tactics, which many have interpreted as a tacit admission of earlier mistakes, analysts say much of what Bush has articulated to the public about the mission in Iraq has been consistent. "What came out in the speech was his core conviction: that the United States knows best and others have a duty, indeed a responsibility, to follow our way," says Ivo Daalder, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Ultimately, Republicans believe the public will give Bush wide latitude in supporting his efforts to rebuild the country, regardless of how difficult the task appears. "The politics of this situation are so completely different from the politics of Vietnam - because of 9/11," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "The public is far more willing to accept their president's judgment about what needs to be done to avoid another 9/11."

Staff writers Linda Feldmann and Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report.

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