By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 5/25/2004 9:49:50 AM ET 2004-05-25T13:49:50
ANALYSIS

A most dangerous moment for a president is when he must ask the American people to re-commit their support to an effort from which illusions have been stripped.

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With stability throughout Iraq not yet in hand and President Bush’s goal of Iraqi democracy seeming a remote prospect, the president took on the task Monday night of making his case anew.

He did it first by reminding his audience of the nature of the enemy Americans face in Iraq.

The enemy: fanaticism
The assassination of Iraqis working in the interim government and the beheading of Nick Berg were, Bush said, the product of “a fanaticism that was not caused by any action of ours and would not be appeased by any concession.”

Bush warned that “as the Iraqi people move closer to governing themselves, the terrorists are likely to become more active and more brutal. There are difficult days ahead, and the way forward may sometimes appear chaotic.”

While reaffirming his commitment to transfer of power on June 30 and full national elections under international supervision no later than January of 2005, Bush did not deal with the possibility that a majority of Iraqis may not be committed to free elections and the rule of law, and may be willing to let a violent minority run roughshod over democratic forces.

He also did not admit strategic errors, such as sending what many Iraq experts regard as too few troops in Iraq to secure weapons caches in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's fall.

Nor did he address what will happen if the new Iraqi government demands prompt withdrawal of American troops, even if at that point chaos and terrorism might seem likely to increase.

He made both a prediction and an affirmation of faith: “Terrorists will not determine the future of Iraq.”

Soaring rhetoric
A bit muted but not gone was the soaring rhetoric of Bush’s Nov. 6, 2003, speech on the ripple effects a newly planted Iraqi democracy would have in the Middle East.

In that speech, one of the most important of his presidency, Bush committed the American people to the idealistic goal of establishing first Iraqi, and then full Middle Eastern, democracy.

He acknowledged that it was “a massive and difficult undertaking” — a phrase he echoed Monday night — but predicted that “the establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.”

Bush's Monday night speech was a re-affirmation of this vision, but with the added hard-won experience of 14 months of fighting in Iraq.

How much patience do the American people have for this project?

A year ago, 74 percent of Americans interviewed by the Pew Research Center said Bush and Congress had made the right choice to invade Iraq. In the most recent Pew survey, earlier this month, 51 percent said going to war was the right decision.

Americans' pragmatism
But even a year ago many Americans had a pragmatism that tempered their view of what might happen in Iraq.

In April of 2003, 67 percent of the respondents in the Pew poll said they were worried that “there will be an ongoing campaign of guerrilla warfare against U.S. forces after the war comes to an end.”

Those fears have proven to be realistic.

Now that the effort has met resistance and casualties have mounted, the president has only five months, probably less, to persuade voters that a stable non-threatening Iraq is a goal worth sacrificing American soldiers for.

Despite the spate of demoralizing stories about the Abu Ghraib prison in the past few weeks, Bush does have a base upon which to build.

By 53 percent to 42 percent, Americans favor keeping the troops in Iraq until a stable government is established, according to the Pew May 3-9 survey.

Stability in Iraq is a goal that NATO members and other countries could help Bush work toward, a point he’ll make as he meets with NATO leaders in Istanbul on June 28 and 29.

And to a greater degree than in any recent election, the actions of foreign governments will exert a large influence on the U.S. presidential race.

Referring to European and other governments on whom the United States might call for help in stabilizing Iraq, Professor Shibley Telhami, who teaches Middle East politics at the University of Maryland, said Monday, “They honestly don’t want his administration to succeed. No one is going to do enough” to provide assistance, whether military or financial, for Bush administration policies to succeed in Iraq.

In a U.S. presidential election year, Telhami said, foreign governments “aren’t going to go out of their way” to help Bush.

Danger of 'failed state'
However, Telhami said, these governments don’t want U.S. stabilization efforts to entirely go bust, don’t want Iraq to become a chaotic “failed state.”

If that happened, it would spread instability through the region, endanger oil supplies and play havoc with the global economy.

Kenneth Pollack, a National Security Council official in the Clinton administration who is now at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said “It’s a massive free-rider problem” because other governments are allowing the United States to do most of the work in Iraq even while they benefit from U.S. efforts toward making the country stable.

If Telhami is correct that European and other governments don’t want Bush to succeed, then Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry’s proposed solution is perhaps more of a place-holder than a problem solver.

Kerry said in his April 30 speech on Iraq that Bush “must immediately and personally reach out and convince (foreign leaders) that Iraqi security and stability is a global interest that all must contribute to.”

Those leaders think Iraq stability is important, but may well conclude there’s little reason to help Bush now when it appears increasingly possible they’ll be rid of him after Nov. 2.

Meanwhile back on the campaign trail in the United States, Kerry has made what seems to be a shrewd choice in saying relatively little about Iraq in recent weeks. He has run only one television ad about his stand on Iraq and given one major Iraq address on April 30. Nothing in that speech radically broke from what Bush is doing.

So far Kerry’s reticence on the issue appears to not be costing him in the polls, and Bush's approval numbers are sinking.

Whether Kerry can continue with his strategy of reticence on Iraq is doubtful.

Depending on his ability to surmount ballot access hurdles, Ralph Nader may provide an alternative for voters who support an early Iraq exit.

Hawks vs. doves
A big gathering of left-leaning Democrats convenes in Washington next week and some of the attendees will not rest content with Kerry’s more Bush-sounding statements, such as “failure is not an option” or "the extremists attacking our forces should know they will not succeed in dividing America, or in sapping American resolve, or in forcing the premature withdrawal of U.S. troops"

On the hawkish side of the Democratic Party, which tends to be Southern, there is support for a re-commitment to the Iraq stabilization effort.

Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., wrote last Friday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Perhaps we've stirred up a hornets' nest. So be it. The hornets were coming for us sooner or later anyway.”

But Marshall, a Vietnam War veteran, added, “Leave Iraq in chaos, and the world is certainly a more dangerous place than it was…. Although Vietnam was much more intense and bloody, the stakes in Iraq are incomparably higher.”

As discouraging as events in Iraq are for Bush at the moment, Kerry faces his own tough assignment in order to beat the president on Nov. 2: to keep both the dovish and hawkish wings of his party content and highly motivated.

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