As President Bush gathered his advisers at Camp David this week for a brainstorming session on Iraq, his eye had to be on the forthcoming midterm elections and beyond to the presidential elections of 2008.
Ordinarily it is the state of the economy and not a foreign affairs issue that primarily determines the way Americans vote in their national elections. But these are not ordinary times. The US is engaged in a war on terrorism. Many thousands of its soldiers are at risk in Iraq.
The level of stability in Iraq, the extent of US casualties, and uncertainty about the length of US commitment will play a significant role in upcoming elections.
While the Camp David talks did deal with Iraq – nudging of Iraqi leaders included – the president also was making decisions affecting the rest of his presidency. As Iraq goes, so likely goes his presidential legacy.
While the initial military conduct of the war in Iraq was brilliant as American and British forces quickly overran an inferior Iraqi Army, the postwar phase was ill prepared and inept in aspects of its execution.
On the positive side, Saddam Hussein has been deposed and will face justice for his multitude of crimes. Millions of Iraqis have voted in free elections, a Constitution has been written, and a government installed.
Last week Al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was found and killed. That is a victory for the quality of US intelligence in Iraq and should surely be a blow to the morale of his followers. But just how his departure will affect the level of terrorist activity remains to be seen.
On the negative side, the formation of the government was tediously long, reflecting the deep and continuing suspicions among the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites. Despite much unheralded progress in the reconstruction of Iraq's physical infrastructure, many Iraqis remain without reliable electricity, water, and other services. Security is often nonexistent. The country is awash with weapons in the hands of the US military, Iraqi government police and troops, private militias, political factions, and of course terrorists of various nationalities with differing agendas. All this leads some Iraqis to declare that although they are glad to be liberated, day-to-day life now is worse than it was under Mr. Hussein.
As insurgent violence and political wrangling have dragged on, President Bush's ratings at home have fallen. Though the polls show a majority of Americans supported the decision to intervene in Iraq, impatience with the aftermath has escalated. Henceforth, Bush doesn't have a blank check from the American people.
The president has many items on his worry list. Abroad there are the nuclear weapons ambitions of Iran and North Korea, the anti-American bellicosity of Hugo Chávez in oil-rich Venezuela and the leftward drift in Latin America, and the US relationship with China and with Russia. Some of Bush's tough language on these issues has been toned down as he has given Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice authority to try some new diplomatic efforts.
At home he is championing changes in immigration and Social Security, two controversial issues that must be tackled although neither offer him much political gain. He has embarked on a charm offensive with individual members of Congress who must be effectively wooed if his plans for reform are to succeed.
But all the problems, foreign and domestic, fade into the background so long as Iraq remains the principal challenge that it is.
The ideal is that the new Iraqi government should take hold, put down terrorism, stabilize the economy, and permit the beginning of an American troop withdrawal. Should Iraq be able to do this on a reasonable timetable, it could have a significant impact on other lands in the Islamic world.
Thus, stability in Iraq triggering movement toward some kind of democracy in the Middle East would be the achievement for which the Bush presidency would best be remembered.
No wonder that Bush and his advisers have been consumed this week with concern for the outcome in Iraq. It is the tipping point of his presidency.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.