Onus Now on Kerry’s Iraq Plan

Times Staff Writer

President Bush offered Monday the most detailed explanation of his plan for moving Iraq from chaos to independence, increasing the pressure on his Democratic rival, Sen. John F. Kerry, to fill in an alternative vision for stabilizing the troubled country.

Bush did not offer any new initiatives -- apart from a largely symbolic promise to tear down Abu Ghraib prison, where American soldiers abused Iraqi prisoners -- or set a date for the withdrawal of American troops.

But he presented, step by step, moves for vesting sovereignty in a new Iraqi government and ending the American-led occupation.

The address clearly seemed aimed at what polls show is one of Bush’s principal threats in the election: the growing sense among Americans that he does not have a clear plan for success in Iraq.


In a statement, Kerry dismissed the speech as a rehash of Bush’s previous arguments.

“The president laid out general principles tonight, most of which we’ve heard before,” said Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. “What’s most important now is to turn these words into action by offering presidential leadership to the nation and to the world.”

But if anything, some analysts say, Bush’s recitation of what he called “the specific steps we are taking to achieve our goals” could increase demands for Kerry to offer more specifics of his own.

Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who studies public opinion on national security, said Bush’s speech would “raise the bar” for Kerry and other critics to explain their plans. “It will be hard to identify something in [Bush’s speech] that is wrong-headed that will allow a critic to say, here’s a better way to do it,” he said.

The speech seems unlikely to turn the tide in public opinion on Iraq -- if only because no single address, or even any single event, has shown the power to win lasting backing for the war.

Feaver said Bush probably did not suggest a new direction that would convert those Americans who have “already concluded it is hopeless in Iraq.” But he predicted it may help “stabilize” those who “want us to win and believe the U.S. can win,” even if they fear America is not succeeding.

Still, Feaver, like other analysts, acknowledges that any gains Bush earns with this speech -- and the five expected in the next few weeks -- are likely to last only if they are reinforced by improvements in Iraq.

One overriding lesson of the last year was that American public opinion on the war has proved extremely sensitive to events. A series of reversals over the last several months -- from the violence in Sunni Muslim-dominated Fallouja and the challenge from the militia controlled by radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr to the scandal at Abu Ghraib -- has driven public confidence in the war to a low.

Three polls released hours before the president spoke underscored the erosion. By a ratio of nearly 2 to 1, a majority of Americans in a National Annenberg Election Survey said they did not believe that Bush had a “clear plan for bringing the situation in Iraq to a successful conclusion.”

In an ABC/Washington Post poll also released Monday, nearly three-fifths of Americans said they disapproved of Bush’s handling of the war -- the highest level the survey has ever recorded.

And in a CBS survey, nearly two-thirds of Americans said they believed America was on the wrong track, matching the highest number CBS has found since it began asking the question about 20 years ago.

In all three surveys, as well as a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released Monday, Bush’s overall approval rating stood below the 50% mark usually considered the danger zone for an incumbent. Despite that, Kerry does not have a substantial lead over Bush; the ABC/Washington Post poll shows each with 46% of the vote if the election were today.

At the same time, Bush is facing a near-crisis of confidence over Iraq among many opinion leaders. On Sunday night, for example, retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, the former commander in chief of U.S. forces in the Middle East and a former special envoy for Bush in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, said that Bush’s current policy in Iraq was headed for disaster.

“To think that we are going to, quote, stay the course -- this course is headed over Niagara Falls,” Zinni said on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

Over the last several days, conservatives such as William Kristol, publisher of the Weekly Standard, have been urging Bush to use greater force to eliminate Iraqi insurgents. Meanwhile, even several centrist Democratic analysts, such as James Steinberg, deputy national security advisor under President Clinton, have urged Bush to set a specific date for withdrawing American troops.

Faced with such criticism and doubts, Bush did not present any significant change of course in his policies Monday night. But he offered a very different tone from his nationally televised news conference in April, when he mostly stressed his resolve to succeed in Iraq and divulged few details of his plans.

By contrast, Monday’s speech focused on the particulars -- from the path to the planned June 30 hand-over of power to an interim Iraqi government to the road map for elections to pick a permanent government and ratify a constitution next year.

And although Bush struck the notes of resolve that have become a trademark of his speeches on Iraq, he also seemed more determined than usual to court those critics who see him as rigid or uncompromising.

He offered praise for collaboration (stressing the role of U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in identifying the interim government) and flexibility (touting the coalition’s determination to use different military tactics against different threats). Bush also displayed a more conciliatory tone in his other major Iraq initiative on Monday: the release, with Britain, of a draft United Nations resolution establishing the legal framework for the government Brahimi is assembling.

Disputes over elements of the draft seem inevitable with the nations originally critical of the war, especially France and Russia, diplomats say. One point of contention will be France’s call to establish a clear cutoff date for the presence of foreign troops in Iraq unless the new Iraqi government asks for them to stay.

But overall, governments critical of the war in Iraq have been “pleasantly surprised” by the draft, one senior European diplomat in Washington said.

“It is an effort,” said the diplomat. “It may not be quite 100% of what we need. But it is truly an effort.”

By reaching out at least partially to estranged allies, the proposed U.N. resolution seems designed to blunt another principal charge against Bush’s Iraq policy: the allegation by Kerry and others that the U.S. is bearing too much of the burden because the president has alienated too many other nations.

These subtle mid-course corrections may not help Bush much if conditions do not improve in Iraq itself. But they show that the president is not waiting for a decisive change in Iraq to try to alter the terms of debate at home. And they may compel Kerry to demonstrate the same flexibility in adjusting his plans to a rapidly shifting landscape in the war that has come to dominate the presidential race.


Times staff writers Maggie Farley at the United Nations and Mary Curtius in Washington contributed to this report.



Polling the voters

Results of national polls out Monday on the presidential race among President Bush, Sen. John F. Kerry and Ralph Nader:

ABC-Washington Post Bush 46% Kerry 46% Nader 4% Undecided/other 4%

Conducted May 20-23, asked of 852 registered voters. The margin of error is +/-3.5 percentage points.

CBS News poll Kerry 47% Bush 41% Nader 5% Undecided 6%

Conducted May 20-23, asked of 923 registered voters. The margin of error is +/-3 percentage points.

CNN-USA Today-Gallup Kerry 47% Bush 46% Nader 4% Undecided 3%

Conducted May 21-23, asked of 665 likely voters. The margin of error is +/-4 percentage points.

Results may not total 100% because of rounding. Source: Associated Press