The Magazine

Bush's Bad Polls

Look no further than the war for an explanation.

May 8, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 32 • By FRANK CANNON and JEFFREY BELL
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THE USUAL WAY OF ANALYZING the collapse in polls of public approval of the Bush administration is to make a list of all the things the analyst believes are going wrong and attribute the decline to those things. The polls provide plausibility for this method, because the president's performance rating has declined greatly on each of the individual issues that voters are asked about.

But the very universality of these declines should make us wary. In 2002, the U.S. economy was recovering sluggishly from the 2001 recession, yet Bush enjoyed solid public approval of his handling of the economy. Today, the economy has enjoyed three years of much faster growth without inflation--yet Bush's performance rating on handling the economy has collapsed just as precipitously as it has on other issues.

The truth is that in wartime, public perception of a president's handling of the war is more important politically than everything else combined. This was the case in 2002 as it is in 2006. The big difference between these two years, politically speaking, has nothing to do with today's much stronger economy. In 2002 the public rated Bush very favorably on the war on terrorism; today its verdict on him as a war leader is far lower and continuing to decline. And to voters in wartime, a president's handling of the war is not simply the most important of several issues. Fairly or unfairly, it shapes their opinion of him on every other issue as well.

The debate on the war has often taken the form of a debate on whether our decision to seek regime change in Iraq is a necessary, integral part of the larger war on terrorism, or a diversion from it, as many Democrats have argued. It seems likely that Bush has won this debate, but winning or losing this debate has lost its political salience.

That is because the central fact of today's political landscape is that Iraq is seen by voters as going badly--so badly that it is affecting the rest of the war on terrorism. Iran has become more and more aggressive in its nuclear ambitions; there is an upsurge of Taliban activity in Afghanistan; Syria has reverted to terrorism and assassinations in Lebanon; democracy in the Arab world is meeting new resistance in Egypt and elsewhere--pick your own bad-news list. To voters who still believe Iraq is a diversion from the larger war, these non-Iraq developments represent vindication. If Bush hadn't invaded Iraq, they argue, we would have more resources to fight all the other battles.

Far more important is the reaction of voters who always agreed with Bush about the strategic centrality of Iraq, or have come to believe in its centrality in the years since the invasion. The key premise Bush and all these voters share is that success or failure in Iraq will affect success or failure in a war of global reach. To increasing numbers of these voters, such disturbing events as the escalating challenge from Tehran are a sign that U.S. frustration in Iraq is beginning to mean what Bush always said it would mean: marked progress, perhaps even victory, for Islamist radicals in the war as a whole.

Is Iraq going as badly as voters believe it is? There is much evidence that it is not. But this is another argument of declining political relevance. The reason lies in the nature of asymmetric warfare. By definition, the weaker side in an asymmetric war cannot prevail militarily. Its central objective is to convince the political decision-makers of the superior side that continuing the war is an exercise in futility. That is why the Communists' Tet offensive of early 1968 could be, at one and the same time, militarily disastrous and politically decisive in inducing the United States to terminate its involvement in the Vietnam war.

Our enemies in Iraq, particularly Abu Musab al Zarqawi, clearly have studied Tet and learned well. At each stage of the three-year conflict in Iraq, Zarqawi has chosen tactics of high psychological impact on America's home front over conventional military success in Iraq. Each of a series of tactics--the beheading of western hostages, suicide bombings in civilian areas, roadside bombs aimed at American soldiers, and (most recently) terror attacks on Shiite mosques designed to provoke a wave of ethnic cleansing--have been well designed to make American voters and political elites feel an overwhelming sense of futility.

The explicit connection to Tet in the thinking of the enemy was recently underlined by the discovery by allied forces of a plan to attack and occupy the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. In 1968, one of the most potent blows of the war was struck by the Vietcong when it invaded and briefly occupied part of our embassy grounds in Saigon--a move that had absolutely no military significance yet was reported around the world as a devastating symbol of American failure.

If our view is right, nothing the administration does on the economy, health care, immigration, or any other non-war issue will affect the president's overall performance rating very much. Only a change in public perception of the administration's handling of the war on terrorism is capable of doing that.

Does that imply that only a sharp reduction of enemy activity in Iraq could improve the public's rating of Bush's handling of the war? If so, it is very bad news. Given the track record of Zarqawi's success in Tet-style asymmetric warfare, there's a very good chance he and his friends could come up with new psy-war tactics to demoralize American voters and political elites. If the past is prologue, such tactics could easily be executed even at times when American and Iraqi government forces were achieving great progress in pure military terms, or even in the midst of an American-Iraqi push to successfully counter the earlier Tet-style tactics. Asymmetric warfare, after all, does not require armed strength or military success on the part of the weaker power, but only an ability to keep undermining the political will of the stronger power.

An American military withdrawal from Iraq, whether swift or gradual, announced or tacit, would be even less likely to improve the public's rating of Bush as a war president.

If a withdrawal came in the wake of a visible movement toward victory in Iraq, it would of course be welcomed. But that scenario implies fulfillment of the goal of swift, near-term movement toward victory in Iraq, which by the nature of asymmetric warfare, and the enemy's mastery of it, is highly unlikely.

A U.S. withdrawal in the absence of visible progress, on the other hand, would be devastating to Bush. For voters who bought Bush's argument on the centrality of Iraq in the larger context of the world war on terrorism, it would be something very close to an admission of global failure. And for voters who always thought Iraq was a diversion or sideshow, it would be taken as ratification of their long-held view that Bush spilled our blood and treasure in Iraq for nothing.

Looking only at Iraq, and its intimate relationship to the decline of voter confidence in Bush's handling of the presidency as a whole, the picture is bleak and unlikely to change very much in the foreseeable future.

But this view is claustrophobic, because it leaves out Bush's handling of the rest of the war on terrorism. This is the one issue where Bush's ratings have remained respectable. And it is the one area with considerable upside potential for a change in voters' overall view of Bush.

Why? Because most voters now believe this is a world war. This includes many if not most voters who disagreed with the president's decision to invade Iraq.

Yes, visible progress toward achieving democracy in Iraq would be a positive force all over the Arab and Islamic world. Bush is right about that, and that is why success in Iraq is still worth sacrificing for. But the nature of a world war, which this is, implies that the relationship goes both ways--indeed, in all directions. That is, positive developments in any one sector of the battlefield are capable of reverberating back through all the others.

THE TRUTH IS, even as the struggle in Iraq has intensified over the past three years, other fronts in the world war have become far more active than they were earlier. Think of the suicide bombings in Madrid and London. Think of the expulsion of the Syrian Army from Lebanon. Think of the cartoon crisis, which originated in Denmark and caused riots and mass killings far and wide--some of the worst of which came in Nigeria.

Think, above all, of the Islamist regime in Iran. A regime that threatens repeatedly to annihilate Israel, that threatens to make its nuclear program completely secret, that threatens to share nuclear technology with the genocidal regime in Sudan and (at least by implication) with nongovernmental terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. This, don't forget, is the same regime whose willingness to stonewall in negotiations coincided with the political demise of one American president (Jimmy Carter) and came quite close to bringing down another (Ronald Reagan).

President Bush has never ruled out the use of military force against this toxic regime. But all high officials on his second-term foreign-policy team--including his secretary of state, secretary of defense, national security adviser, and director of intelligence--act not just as if this is not under active consideration, but as if the very idea were absurd. They shrug off the simple reality, abundantly plain to the most casual American voter, that Iran is moving ahead with obtaining and (in the regime's own stated scenarios) disseminating nuclear weapons. They act as if our utter failure to deter Iran is less important than the fact that we are not being attacked as warmongers by France and Germany.

Their body language says that Iraq has tied our hands everywhere else. If that is true, then engaging in Iraq has in fact handcuffed the United States in a world war, and the Bush administration will not make a comeback in public opinion.

But if, as we believe, Bush and the majority of American voters are right--in their belief that Iraq is one front, important but not all-encompassing, of a much wider war--then a failure to act elsewhere will also deny the administration a comeback, because most Americans believe that acting elsewhere is possible, and may in certain grave circumstances be required.

The president's decision on who is right--those who would handcuff him because of Iraq, or those who believe a world war sometimes requires grave, unpleasant decisions on more than one front--will almost certainly determine the future of his presidency in the eyes of the American electorate as a whole.

Jeffrey Bell and Frank Cannon are principals of Capital City Partners, a Washington consulting firm.