Can Marketing Overcome Iraq Mistakes?

President Bush speaks to members of the Council on Foreign Relations. i

President Bush speaks to members of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., about the war in Iraq, Dec. 7, 2005. hide caption

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President Bush speaks to members of the Council on Foreign Relations.

President Bush speaks to members of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., about the war in Iraq, Dec. 7, 2005.

Finding itself embattled over the war in Iraq, the Bush administration has launched a major offensive — not on the war front, but on the home front.

The president has now given two speeches reintroducing the nation to his view of the situation in Iraq, a view propounded at length in "Our National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," a 35-page document released last week.

Vice President Dick Cheney is aggressively out on the stump, too, while Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld huddles with small groups of legislators on Capitol Hill.

The upbeat tone of all this, the pounding of the word victory and the brave show of commitment are all designed to convey and instill one thing: Confidence.

Among the several administration thinkers involved in producing this offensive was Peter D. Feaver, a political scientist from Duke University and a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve. Feaver and his Duke colleague Christopher Gelpi argue that Americans can be re-energized at this stage of the war. They say Americans are not as casualty-averse as is often supposed and will accept sacrifice, in blood and treasure, so long as they see it leading to success.

The problem with the war in Iraq, then, is that the vision of victory has been too vague, too uncertain or simply too remote.

To combat this perceived problem, the new approach combines a dash of realism with a strong restatement of stoicism. The realism reaches for credibility, in part by admitting some mistakes were made. Without dwelling on any specifics, Mr. Bush alluded to errors in the rebuilding of Iraq in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations this week.

It was far from a searing self-critique, to be sure, but it represented a reversal in the longstanding White House attitude of "never explain, never apologize." The vice president and secretary of defense have also made similar, if grudging, admissions.

Having made this concession, however, the new approach quickly returns to the main themes the administration has pursued over the past two years. To wit:

• Iraq has become the central front in the war on terror.

• We cannot lose the war on terror, so we cannot abandon its central front.

• Without U.S. troops, Iraq would be in chaos, bringing a return to tyrannical rule.

• An abandoned Iraq would become a safe haven and base of operations for al Qaeda.

Never mind for the moment that any or all of these statements may be, in varying degrees, debatable. The point of the new approach is to set forth these clear points and to hammer them home with assurance. Doing so will make more Americans aware of what we are doing in Iraq, and why. The theory presumes this will make more of them supportive.

With more people buying in at home, the troops will feel better about being in Iraq and will fight more effectively. Iraqis will be trained more quickly and take over the military and civil struggle sooner. The U.S. presence can be reduced and eventually ended. Increased confidence at home leads directly to victory. Believing it will happen makes it so.

It's not hard to see why this kind of faith-based marketing strategy appeals to the people at the White House. They were already inclined to think the Iraq problem was not in Iraq but here at home. They already saw the challenge as perceptual, not real.

But give them credit for seeing at least that there is a problem. The war has become not only the rock dividing the stream of political life in Washington and the country but the dam that stops the stream. Views on the war now figure into attitudes on every issue and attitudes toward the president himself. The war cramps his coordination with Congress on foreign affairs, economic policy, immigration, taxes and even Supreme Court nominations.

And of all the news coming from the polls, perhaps the most corrosive for the administration is that half or more of the country now sees the war as a mistake. These Americans may not think it's possible to pull out just yet, but they think it was a bad move to get in there in the first place. Just about the same percentage now regards the original set of justifications as dubious.

What will happen to these particular convictions as the stoic pursuit of the policy continues and the price gets higher? Even if the new marketing campaign succeeds in shoring up support for the war in the months ahead, those persuaded to stay the course are not likely to feel much better about it. And that could make the eventual day of political reckoning all the harder on those held responsible.

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