Has the 'Tipping Point' on Iraq Been Reached?

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by Jim Lobe by Jim Lobe

Has the U.S. public lost so much confidence in the George W. Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war that its current strategy – to the extent one actually exists – is unsustainable?

With President Bush himself besieged by antiwar protesters on his seemingly endless and ill-timed vacation at his Texas ranch, that appears to be The Big Question, just two weeks before the resumption of official business back in Washington.

Both Republican lawmakers, who face mid-term elections 15 months from now, and the military itself, which, as a result of the Vietnam debacle, has taken as an article of faith that the loss of civilian support must be avoided at all costs, appear increasingly restive and unhappy with the course of events.

"There are more and more voices within the party and military who are beginning to acknowledge that the situation in Iraq is not only not improving, but is actually getting worse," said Jim Cason of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), a lobby group that opposed the war.

"The administration is under more and more pressure from within – especially from the Pentagon and influential Republicans on Capitol Hill – and it clearly hasn’t figured out what to do about it."

Media coverage of the war has turned particularly gloomy over the past several weeks, and particularly since the Aug. 3 killing of 14 U.S. servicemen in one deadly bombing incident.

The front-page headlines tell the story. "In Iraq, No Clear Finish Line," which ran in the Washington Post a week ago, was soon succeeded by "U.S. Lowers Sights on What Can be Achieved in Iraq," which was then eclipsed by a more general analysis Thursday entitled "U.S. Policy on ‘Axis of Evil’ Suffers Spate of Setbacks."

Among other points, that article noted that the administration’s blunders in Iraq had clearly strengthened the strategic position of North Korea and especially Iran, whose influence with the new government in Baghdad has been growing steadily, much to Washington’s discomfort.

As for the other "court paper" of the U.S. capital, the New York Times, a searing critique of Bush’s policy by columnist Frank Rich entitled "Someone Tell the President the War is Over" appeared virtually everywhere on the Internet almost the instant that it was published last Sunday.

And an analysis Thursday, "Bad Iraq War News Has Some in the GOP Worried over ’06 Vote," argued that even among staunch war hawks in Congress, Iraq was fast becoming a political albatross of Vietnam-like dimensions.

Even arch-hawk Newt Gingrich, former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, admitted that the near-victory of the Democratic candidate and Iraq veteran who denounced Bush as a "chickenhawk" in a solidly Republican district in Ohio earlier this month was a "wake-up call" for the party.

Public opinion polls have been telling a similar story. A Newsweek poll taken two weeks ago found that confidence in Bush’s handling of the war had fallen to an all-time low of 34 percent, which, as Rich pointed out, was roughly equivalent to the approval rating of former President Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War after the 1968 Tet offensive that is widely believed to have marked the "tipping point" in public opposition to Washington’s intervention in Indochina.

An earlier Associated Press-Ipsos survey found somewhat more support for Bush’s Iraq policy – 38 percent. But that was also an all-time low for that survey and was also conducted just before the killing of the 14 Marines.

Another poll by USA Today, CNN, and Gallup published a few days later found majorities believe that going to war in Iraq was a mistake and has made the U.S. more vulnerable to terrorism, and now favor withdrawing U.S. troops. A third of those questioned said they want all troops withdrawn immediately.

Growing tensions within the administration and among its supporters have also contributed to the sense of disarray that has taken hold.

When senior military commanders began floating the idea that Washington could begin withdrawing substantial numbers of its 140,000 troops in Iraq by next spring, Bush himself dismissed it as mere speculation.

That exchange, in addition to further alienating the officer corps from the White House, spurred a spate of new attacks by prominent neoconservatives against Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, whom they have always blamed for being insufficiently committed to "transforming" Iraq.

"What the president needs to do now is tell the Pentagon to stop talking about [and planning for] withdrawal, and make sure they are planning for victory," wrote William Kristol in The Weekly Standard, adding, "to win, the president needs a defense secretary who is willing to fight and able to win."

Writing in the Washington Post, Frederick Kagan, a military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), also denounced any talk of withdrawal as "dangerous and unwarranted," arguing that the "light infantry" and police forces being trained by Washington will "be dependent on significant levels of U.S. military support for years to come."

Yet even Kagan’s AEI colleague, economist Kevin Hassett, suggested that Iraq has now become a major political problem for Bush and the Republicans, one that prevented the public from recognizing how well the U.S. economy is performing.

"Why Are Americans Sour About Everything?" he asked in a column this week for Bloomberg. "Iraq," he replied, noting the imminence of next year’s election campaign.

To the surprise of many observers, Bush, who has spent three weeks at his ranch desperately avoiding meeting with Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq who has emerged as an antiwar icon, has done nothing to dispel the growing malaise.

While his media supporters have mounted a predictably nasty campaign to discredit Sheehan, her presence at "Camp Casey," the spot where she and her supporters are conducting their vigil in Crawford, Bush’s failure to meet with her because "I think it’s also important for me to go on with my life" appears surprisingly callous.

The passivity of his handlers in permitting Sheehan to dominate news coverage from the Texas White House has also surprised observers and bolstered the impression that the administration has both lost its political touch and has no answers to the kinds of questions Sheehan and the public at large are raising.

While the administration’s predicament clearly favors Democrats, signs that Iraq is fueling potential political problems for them are also on the rise. While prominent Democrats in the House of Representatives, unlike their Republican colleagues, have already lined up in favor of a gradual withdrawal from Iraq, the party’s most prominent figures in the Senate, from which the 2008 presidential candidate is likely to emerge, have until now generally remained hawkish on Iraq, lest they be considered "soft" on national security.

On Wednesday, however, Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold, a normally cautious lawmaker who is considering a presidential bid, broke ranks with other likely candidates, including Sens. Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden, by calling for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2006 and calling his party colleagues "too timid" in challenging Bush on the issue.

His challenge came as some party members have expressed growing anxiety over the deepening rift between grassroots Democrats who support withdrawal and more hawkish party leaders who have echoed Bush in asserting that U.S. credibility would suffer irreversible harm if Washington fails to pacify the country.

Jim Lobe [send him mail] is Inter Press Service’s correspondent in Washington, DC.

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