November 18, 2005
Support for Bush's War Strategy Crumbling
J. Dionne Jr.
WASHINGTON -- This will be remembered as the week that President
Bush lost control over the Iraq War debate. His administration
has perhaps six months to get things right. If the situation in
Iraq fails to improve significantly, public pressure for withdrawal
will become irresistible.
There was a political thunderclap across the capital on Thursday
when Rep. John Murtha -- Marine veteran, defense specialist, longtime
hawk, and traditional supporter of presidential prerogatives in
foreign policy -- called for pulling American troops out of Iraq.
American soldiers, he said, have done ``all they can in Iraq.''
Continued American engagement was ``not in the best interest of
the United States.''
To understand what these words meant coming from this tough,
moderately conservative Pennsylvania Democrat, try to imagine
Bush calling for increasing taxes on the rich or Arnold Schwarzenegger
criticizing bodybuilding. Support for the administration's war
strategy is crumbling.
Murtha's comments came just days after the U.S. Senate sent Bush
a signal of its own. Only five of 44 Democrats voted against the
party's amendment to the defense bill calling for estimated timetables
on withdrawing from Iraq. The tally pointed to the end of Democratic
fear of retaliation from Bush on national security issues. The
political shock and awe that the administration regularly deployed
after Sept. 11, 2001, no longer works.
Even more alarming for Bush is the fact that Senate Republican
leaders felt obligated to introduce and pass their own resolution
declaring 2006 ``a period of significant transition to full Iraqi
sovereignty.'' The resolution called, without specific timetables,
for ``creating the conditions for the phased redeployment of United
States forces from Iraq.''
Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, noted that the Republican
resolution drew heavily on the language of the Democrats' proposal.
Durbin praised Sen. John Warner, the Republican chairman of the
Armed Services Committee, for a speech this week arguing that
the next 60 to 180 days -- notice Warner's time line -- were critical
to the future of Iraq and that the Iraqi government needed to
come to grips with its ``internal problems.''
``Warner's speech,'' Durbin said in an interview, ``was as clear
a signal as this White House will ever get that its loyalists
in the Republican Party have lost faith in its strategy.''
The growing nervousness within Bush's own party is a reaction
to more than just short-term poll numbers. What's most striking
and little noticed in the recent surveys is that even among the
war's supporters, enthusiasm has waned. Intensity is on the side
of war's opponents.
In the most recent Washington Post/ABC News Poll -- conducted
from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2 -- 39 percent of Americans said the war
in Iraq had been worth fighting, while 60 percent said it was
not. But only 25 percent said they felt ``strongly'' that the
war was worth it, while 48 percent felt strongly that it was not.
The findings on the strength of feelings about the war were matched
by the intensity of feelings about Bush himself: Only 20 percent
of those surveyed said they strongly approved of the overall job
Bush was doing, while 47 percent strongly disapproved. A president
who has always played to his base finds that his base is steadily
This helps explain the White House's furious assault against
Democrats for questioning the administration's use of intelligence
to justify the invasion of Iraq. If nothing else, Bush wants to
get Republican partisans back in line.
But attacking Democrats who voted with him on the war and now
have grave doubts about his policies, as Murtha does, is hardly
a way for the president to buy himself maneuvering room in Iraq.
It will be difficult for Bush's acolytes to cast Murtha, who regularly
stood up for the military policies of Republican presidents during
his 31 years in Congress, as some kind of extreme partisan or
If the administration cares more about the long-term outcome
in Iraq than short-term maneuvering to punch up its polling numbers,
it will pay attention to Murtha's defection and the Senate's warnings.
Like it or not, Bush doesn't have much time to arrange a decent
result. The administration will lose its Iraqi bet altogether
if it fails to deal with this reality. The president's problem
is not with partisan or dovish Democrats, but with members of
his own party, with dispirited hawks, and with loyalists who are
losing heart. They need to believe Bush has a plausible approach
to the endgame. As of now, they don't.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group