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.