Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard and Fox News are leading the amen chorus of conservative pundits who often seem to be writing off a common set of Bush administration talking points. With the president’s approval ratings under 40 percent, Barnes is busy explaining that things could be worse. Karl Rove was not indicted and with the Alito nomination, President Bush repaired frayed relations with his conservative base. So, Barnes says, unlike President Reagan, whose presidency was “essentially over” when the Iran-Contra scandal broke, Bush can recover.
But there is a better point of historical comparison than Reagan. Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was elected in an enormous landslide in 1964 in the halo of a slain president. He had tremendous domestic accomplishments, but it was the war he could not end that ultimately paralyzed the Johnson presidency. The same will be true of Bush.
The November 6 Washington Post/ABC News poll shows the Democrats leading in nine of 10 issues including health care, gas prices, education, the economy, taxes, ethics and Iraq. The parties tie on terrorism. However, on which party has the strongest leaders, the Republicans have a 16-point advantage, 51-35 percent. Less than half of those polled said the Democrats are offering the country a clear direction that is different from the Republicans.
In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, John Mueller writes that it is striking how precipitously public support for the war in Iraq has fallen. When American casualties were at 1,500, polls showed that more than half the respondents considered Iraq a mistake. That percentage was not reached during Vietnam until the Tet offensive of 1968 when 20,000 had died.
A professor at Ohio State, Mueller is a specialist on war, presidents and public opinion. “Support drops when they begin to see the body bags,” says Mueller. So the administration tried to ban any photos of flag-draped caskets returning to Dover Airbase, the funeral home for America’s dead soldiers.
With the original purposes of the war now evaporated, political scientist Francis Fukuyama says: “If Bush had come to the American people with a request to spend several hundred billion dollars and several thousand American lives in order to bring democracy to Iraq, he would have been laughed out of court.”
So the pundits have a harder job defending Bush’s position that we must stay the course. So they resort to spin and even fiction. Barnes tells his readers that on the military side, the insurgency is declining. Anyone who saw last month’s casualty reports knows that is not true.
If only Democratic leaders would notice, the case for withdrawal grows stronger every day. Most of the insurgents are fighting mainly to get America out of Iraq, and they have nothing like the international support enjoyed by the Viet Cong. Even if civil war follows an American withdrawal, that — like their constitution and the trial of Saddam — is Iraqi business. Ask yourself this: Would the U.S. be prepared to send troops back to Iraq to establish order in the event a full scale civil war erupts after U.S. withdrawal?
Bush’s policies are creating an Iraq syndrome, Mueller argues. Among casualties of this war will certainly be the president’s own doctrines of unilateralism, preemption and preventative war. After Iraq, whenever that may be, America is unlikely to force our style of democracy on the rest of the world. We will not soon hear, says Mueller, “that (America) has the duty to rid the world of evil, that international cooperation is of only limited value, that European and other well-meaning foreigners are naive and decadent wimps.”