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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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).