Iraq Is Back on Center Stage

Just a few months ago, Iraq was a half-forgotten war, almost impolite to mention in the daily chatter of policy and politics in Washington. Now, in the week before the 4th of July, Iraq has become the city's central topic of conversation, not just in official forums but in the private rooms where people say what they think.

In the early spring, it was still possible to believe that the Iraqi elections in January, the subjugation of Fallujah and the forming of a new government in Baghdad were leading indicators of success. It seemed plausible that the insurgency was waning. Congress handed over another $80 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan by lopsided votes in the House and Senate.

The Washington consensus was that President Bush faced some big second-term challenges — but that Iraq was not among them.

Then, in just a few short weeks, the situation seemed to implode. The insurgency returned, apparently refreshed by its months of relative quiescence. Newly precise and effective in its savagery, the bombing campaign mocked the completion of the Iraqi cabinet and the resultant American euphoria.

Casualties, both American and Iraqi, mounted, recalling the worse months of 2003 and 2004. Untrammeled by Iraqi security forces and seemingly unfazed by U.S. efforts, the suicide bombers and the more dispassionate killers seemed to strike at will. Big, well-publicized sweeps of the borderlands with Syria and careful scouring of hotbed neighborhoods yielded arms caches and head counts, yet the insurgency continued to surge.

The timing of all this caught the American public unprepared, so the psychological blow fell hard. Public support for the war tumbled in the polls. Most polls showed most Americans had begun to think it was a mistake to go into Iraq. And while most still thought we needed to stay there for now, the phrase "exit strategy" was suddenly popular.

The initial response of the Bush administration was to act as though nothing had changed. The epitome of this posture was Vice President Dick Cheney's shrug about the insurgency being in its "last throes."

The gap between media-borne perceptions and the attitude of the administration widened, until even those who wanted to be reassured found themselves increasingly uneasy. And at that crucial point, when the administration's support base began to soften, the White House line changed.

Then the vice president went on CNN citing the dictionary definition for the word "throes," a tactic that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld chose to reprise in his talk show appearances on Sunday. Who expected shades of Bill Clinton's quibbling over what the meaning of "is" is?

Worse yet, when appearing on a Fox News cable show Sunday, Rumsfeld let slip that a dying insurgency might still last for years — perhaps as many as 12. To be sure, Rumsfeld was not saying American forces would be required for that long. He made it clear he expected U.S. troops to get out far earlier.

But fairly or not, the reference to 12 years was the main artifact of the weekend. On Monday, you heard people talking about it everywhere. And everywhere included some of the bastions of conservatism, the places where support for the war has been presumptive.

Growing apprehension among the administration's allies is the least appreciated part of the shift in U.S. opinion on the war. After all, as President Bush often says, the polls rise and fall. The Democrats in Congress and in the blogosphere can be counted on to accentuate the negative. But when your friends get the anxious look that Chairman John Warner wore throughout the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week, it's time to worry.

Rusmfeld had a rough outing at that Senate hearing. But the most disturbing moments for him may not have been the icy exchange with Hillary Clinton of New York or the call for his resignation from Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. The more unsettling news came from Republican Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, who said the war was giving him problems with people back home.

The administration already knew this, of course. They do polls, too. And while polls show 70 percent of Republicans still think the president has a clear plan in Iraq, it used to be close to 90 percent who thought so (as of late 2004). And if support among Republicans erodes that much again, the whole strategy for Iraq and the Middle East will be in jeopardy.

Polls are what we have between elections. They are enormously inconvenient for second-term presidents, because they tend to diminish the luster of that lovely re-election mandate by suggesting (as they often do) that the president no longer enjoys the same public support that kept him in office.

Concern about the base, then, may have been the real reason Karl Rove went to New York to fire up that state's Conservative Party activists on June 22. Rove, the political strategist who is now also deputy chief of staff, ripped into liberals, saying they wanted to offer terrorists "therapy and understanding" after 9-11, while conservatives saw the need to "summon our national will and brandish steel."

Democrats were swift to object to Rove's speech, perhaps because they wanted to end a week of Republican rage over Sen. Dick Durbin's impolitic remarks on U.S. interrogation methods at Guantanamo Bay. When the Durbin spasm had passed, Rove went to New York to tell that state's small but useful Conservative Party about the difference between therapy and steel. Democrats, of course, took the bait and bought themselves several more days of media debate about whether Democrats are all liberals and about who stands for strength or weakness.

All this enables the administration to do what it did so well in 2004: change the subject from the war to the opponent. In 2004, the opponent was Kerry. This spring, it has been by turns Durbin, Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean or House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi — all of whom have filled the bill admirably. When all else fails, the opponent can be the news media or the faceless, easily demonized "liberals."

Another, more affirmative aspect of the new White House tactics comes with the president's explanatory speech to the nation. While the president offers nothing new by way of substance, he reiterates the commitment of America's fighting men and women by standing with them at Fort Bragg. And he once again associates the war in Iraq with the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Those attacks by al Qaeda have always been the emotional justification for the invasion of Iraq, even when people still believed there were weapons of mass destruction there.

It is not likely that one speech will reverse the trend of doubt about the war. But the White House might well be happy if it can simply arrest that trend, especially as it affects its core supporters.

It's one thing to lose people because you are preaching too much to the choir. It's another thing entirely if you start to lose the choir.

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