Hurricane Katrina and its wrenching aftermath have turned public attention and already-dwindling support away from President Bush’s Iraq policy. And that was before Hurricane Rita took aim at Texas.
The devastating storms are increasing pressure around the country and in Congress for an Iraq exit strategy and prompting calls for reining in spending on an increasingly unpopular war, one which could bedevil Republicans in the 2006 midterm congressional elections.
“It’s a tangled picture” that will get even more complicated as those elections near, said Stephen Cimbala, a political scientist at Pennsylvania State University. “It’s like Osama bin Laden’s running the weather,” he added, referring to the fugitive al-Qaida terror leader.
Bush’s core of supporters for staying the course in Iraq appears to be shrinking, although war opponents are nowhere close to having enough votes in Congress to cut off or trim funds.
As many Americans brace for a winter of soaring home heating prices resulting in part from hurricane damage to oil and natural gas supplies, a rising number of Republican conservatives worry about the federal hurricane tab — estimated at $200 billion or more when Katrina was the only factor.
“Look, everything’s changed. We didn’t anticipate a $200 billion expenditure of taxpayers’ dollars a month ago, and so everything’s changed,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who wants the money to come from spending cuts instead of from U.S. troop withdrawals in Iraq.
But McCain concedes that hurricane concerns are taking a toll on war support — and suggests Bush do more to salvage his Iraq policies.
Show me the money
Polls show a steady erosion in that support, a decline that accelerated in the days after Katrina hit. The storm drew the public’s attention inward and away from foreign policy.
Two-thirds of Americans say Bush is spending too much in Iraq, according to an AP-Ipsos poll. Given a choice, 42 percent favor cutting spending on Iraq to pay for relief efforts on the Gulf Coast, and 29 percent want to delay or cancel Republican tax cuts — both steps that Bush has ruled out.
The president vows to press on in Iraq. “No matter how many car bombs there are, these terrorists cannot stop the march of freedom in Iraq,” Bush told the Republican Jewish Coalition on Wednesday.
Increasing violence by suicide bombers and determined insurgents, lack of outward signs of progress, and now growing sentiment that the billions could be put to better use at home are contributing to crumbling domestic support for the war.
This comes at a time when the president’s strategy enters a crucial period, with upcoming Iraqi elections in October and December that had been expected to set the stage for a military withdrawal. At least 1,907 members of the U.S. military have died in Iraq since the beginning of the war there in March 2003.
Further complicating the administration’s efforts is displeasure, much of it from Republicans, over terms of the new Iraqi constitution that will be voted on Oct. 15. Drawing particular criticism are provisions restricting women’s rights and emphasizing the authority of Shiite clerics.
Already waning support
Even before the hurricane diverted U.S. attention from the bloodshed in Iraq, some Republicans in Congress were expressing skepticism toward the war effort.
Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska compared it to the Vietnam quagmire in which he served four decades ago.
Sen. George Allen, R-Va., weighing a 2008 presidential run, criticized Bush for declining to meet during his Texas vacation with anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, whose Marine son was killed in Iraq.
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said he backed the administration on Iraq “but not necessarily all the tactics.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., support the war effort, but have voiced reservations over certain tactics.
Bush’s most important ally may be McCain, his 2000 GOP rival and a potential 2008 presidential candidate.
“We can’t cut and run,” McCain said earlier this week. Still, McCain has said he lacks confidence in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Calls for troop withdrawals are likely to increase as the 2006 elections draw closer, political analysts suggest.
But argues Anthony Cordesman, an expert on Iraq with the Center for Strategic and International studies: “If you pull troops out too quickly now, and you see the situation in Iraq collapse before the midterm elections, the impact is going to be far more serious than if you keep the troops in at reasonable levels.”
He adds: “There are certain political realities here that are obvious. And some forms of short-term expediency make about as much sense as shooting yourself in the foot.”