Friday, February 16, 2007

Military victory seen as last chance for Bush's Iraq policy

Analysis: Bush loses GOP support on Iraq


By TOM RAUM, Associated Press WriterFri Feb 16, 4:39 PM ET

The American people voted against the Iraq war in giving control of Congress to Democrats, and the new Congress is now registering its opposition. With war appetite in the U.S. faded, even among President Bush's GOP constituency, little short of a major military victory seems capable of rescuing the president's Iraq policy.

"You can't do it with really good communication skills. Now it's got to be done on the ground," said GOP consultant Rich Galen. "The place to look for support in the war is among the U.S. troops in Iraq. Now it's got to work."

Leading the charge are roughly 141,000 U.S. forces and a fledgling Iraqi military led by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom critics and even many Bush supporters see as a shaky ally. Those on both sides of the debate agree there aren't many more opportunities left for a comeback.

The House on Friday voted 246-182 to approve a nonbinding resolution expressing disapproval of Bush's troop buildup. The Senate was meeting in a rare Saturday session to debate the issue.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (news, bio, voting record) said the stakes in Iraq were "too high to recycle proposals that have little prospect for success." Even the president's supporters were subdued. "Once you get into the fight, it's just not that easy to get out," said C.W. Bill Young (news, bio, voting record) of Florida, the senior Republican on a panel that oversees defense spending.

While the legislation before Congress is mostly symbolic, lurking in the wings is the administration's emergency spending request for roughly $100 billion to support current operations, expected to be debated in full next month.

That's where both sides will take their stand, as anti-war Democrats seek to attach strings to the U.S. commitment and to restrict Bush's move to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq. It's also where Bush has signaled he'll make his stand.

The president retains formidable veto powers — and can benefit from the fact that many Democrats don't want to jeopardize U.S. troops already in the field. But the clock is ticking, and Bush's options will become more and more limited with time.

"The president has gone against the advice of his own generals and the will of the American public," said James Thurber, a political scientist at American University. "I think the president is out of touch with respect to what the American people want. It shows in the polls."

Bush made no signs of backing off his decision to send more troops and brushed aside criticism of al-Maliki's capabilities to lead Iraq. "His government knows its responsibilities and is following through on those responsibilities," Bush said Friday after a secure videoconference with the Iraqi prime minister.

Yet even as the president was taking steps to regain his footing, he was drawing fire from some past loyalists.

"Once you've lost the support of the public on the war, which is where we are today, sending in a small contingent of troops is likely going to be seen as not helpful," suggested Matthew Dowd, Bush's former pollster and senior strategist in the president's 2004 re-election campaign.

"He'd be much better off with the public if he said, 'This is a mess, we made mistakes, and the only way to fix it is a wholesale change.' And that could mean either a serious increase in troop strength or withdrawal," Dowd wrote in the upcoming March issue of Texas Monthly magazine.

Still, while Bush faces heavy opposition to his plan to increase troops, he's gained some support since early January, when 26 percent favored the plan. A new AP-Ipsos poll, out Friday, said that more than a third — 35 percent — now favor the increase. Bush has gained ground among key groups of supporters like Republicans, whites, men and Southerners.

It may be a temporary uptick.

"You're going to have to see some progress on the ground, but it's not going to happen overnight," said GOP pollster Ed Goeas.

Goeas said polls are misleading and a lot depends on how the questions are asked.

He said that in his polling, a slight majority of Americans still say they either support Bush's buildup or at least keeping troops there until Iraq "is stable." Those favoring a date-certain withdrawal, or an immediate pullout, are in the minority.

"The tough position the president is in is, you can't talk about a Plan A and a Plan B, because you would then immediately go to Plan B, just mentioning it," Goeas said. He suggested Plan A represented a troop buildup and Plan B represented some form of withdrawal.

"The bottom line is, if this troop 'surge' does not work, we will be going to Plan B within the next year," Goeas added.

Bush himself acknowledges the difficulties he faces. At his news conference earlier this week, he said a member of Congress told him, "You'd better be eloquent in order to convince the American people to support this plan."

He said he told the lawmaker eloquence alone wasn't enough. "What really matters is what happens on the ground," Bush said.