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Public Gives Bush a Long Leash on 9/11, but Little Slack on Iraq

Condoleezza Rice and the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks spent almost all of her appearance last week tussling over the first of Richard Clarke’s two central accusations against President Bush: the charge that the administration initially did not pay enough attention to terrorism.

Given its mandate to focus on 9/11, the commission didn’t press Rice on the second major argument from Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism chief: that by invading Iraq, Bush “greatly undermined the war on terrorism.” But the argument over Iraq will almost certainly influence the result of this year’s presidential election far more than the dispute over Bush’s actions before Sept. 11.

That’s not to say the commission’s exploration of the Bush team’s early attitude toward terrorism won’t create many uncomfortable moments for the administration.

Bush allies are bracing for a tough time as the commission this week turns to lapses within the Justice Department and FBI. The release of the intelligence briefing that Bush received about threats from Al Qaeda on Aug. 6, 2001, will inevitably fuel more questions about his vigilance.

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And judging by the commissioners’ questions at public hearings, and the staff reports already published, no one will be popping champagne corks in the White House when the commission releases its final report this summer.

Yet all indications suggest the report will also criticize Bill Clinton’s administration. That means the commission is likely to reinforce a central strand in public opinion: Though polls show most Americans don’t think Bush had a clear plan for combating Al Qaeda before Sept. 11, they don’t think Clinton -- or almost any other relevant leader or institution -- did enough either.

That widespread belief has two major implications for the 2004 campaign. First, it means that based on the information available so far, most Americans recoil from efforts to blame Bush for the attacks. One leading Democratic interest group recently asked a focus group in Florida to respond to a potential television ad accusing Bush of negligence in failing to stop the attacks. The result was volcanic -- against the ad.

“They were so angry I thought they were going to turn the tables over,” said a Democratic operative who watched the session. “It was a very polarizing ad, and it pushed people who were on the fence decidedly away from us.”

Second, the sense that everyone failed before Sept. 11 -- almost by definition -- means most Americans are likely to judge Bush more on his actions since then. That helps explain why even in polls released since Clarke’s criticism, most Americans still give Bush positive marks for his handling of terrorism. The judgment is so stable because it is rooted in experience: the absence of another major terrorist incident inside the U.S. since Sept. 11.

But the inclination to measure Bush more by his decisions after Sept. 11 than before underscores his vulnerability on Iraq, as violence and chaos spread. In almost all polls, at least half of Americans say they still support the initial decision to invade Iraq, despite the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction Bush and his aides cited as the principal justification. The reason, many opinion analysts agree, is that most Americans think the region, and the United States itself, will be more secure if Iraq becomes stable, pro-Western and democratic.

But as order wavers in Iraq, so does confidence that the mission is meeting those goals. Support for Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq has plummeted to less than 45%. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed in a Gallup Poll last week said things were going badly for the U.S. in Iraq, the most anxiety about the occupation the survey has recorded. Nearly half of Americans say they doubt the U.S. will successfully establish a stable Iraqi government.

The unrest in Iraq is likely to intensify the debate about the fundamental premises that drove Bush to the attack. Above all, the invasion dramatized the priority Bush places on overthrowing or intimidating rogue regimes that could support terrorists. It was telling when Rice revealed last week that after Sept. 11, Bush wondered not only whether Iraq, but also Iran, was culpable. She quoted him asking British Prime Minister Tony Blair, “Was this really just a network that had done this?”

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But a growing number of critics, including many advisors clustered around John F. Kerry, argue that Bush has overstated the terrorists’ need for state sponsorship.

Indeed, more critics are arguing that the invasion not only diverted resources better directed at Al Qaeda itself, but inadvertently strengthened the terrorist cause by providing extremists a powerful recruiting tool through the American occupation of an Islamic nation.

“Ideological motivation for young men to join its ranks is now more important to Al Qaeda than a state sponsor,” Husain Haqqani, a former senior Pakistani official now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in Salon last week.

In his book, “Against All Enemies,” Clarke argues that any American president would have invaded Afghanistan after Sept. 11, but what made Bush “unique” was his decision to attack Iraq as the next step.

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That’s one point from Clarke on which Bush supporters and critics probably could agree. The failures before Sept. 11 have many fathers. But the war in Iraq belongs to Bush alone. It is the centerpiece of his short-term strategy for suppressing terrorism. It is the cornerstone of his long-term vision of curbing anti-American extremism by encouraging democracy in the Islamic world.

If most Americans conclude the war is failing to achieve those goals, or even undermining them, the public is likely to render a far tougher verdict on Bush than it has for his actions before Sept. 11.

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Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times’ website at www.latimes.com/brownstein.

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