For months, President Bush has struggled to maintain public support for the war in Iraq in the face of periodic setbacks on the battlefield. Now he faces a second front in the battle for public opinion: charges that the administration is not telling the truth about how the war is going.
Bush and his aides have delivered a positive, if carefully calibrated, message. The war is not yet won, they acknowledge, but steady progress is being made. “We can expect more tough fighting in the weeks and months ahead,” the president said in his weekly radio address Saturday. “Yet I am confident in the outcome.”
But last month, Vice President Dick Cheney broke from the administration’s “message discipline” and declared that the insurgency was in its “last throes.” The White House has been paying a price ever since.
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who supported the decision to go to war in Iraq, complained that the White House was “completely disconnected from reality.” Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), another supporter of the war, charged that Bush had opened not just a credibility gap, but a “credibility chasm.”
Even Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld distanced himself from the vice president’s words. “I didn’t use them, and I might not use them,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. Rumsfeld said the insurgency could conceivably “go on for four, eight, 10, 12, 15 years, whatever.... We don’t know. It is going to be a problem for the people of Iraq.”
Historian Robert Dallek, a biographer of President Lyndon B. Johnson and an outspoken critic of Bush, said: “Analogies are imperfect, and I hate to press this one, but this is so much like Vietnam. It has echoes of the Vietnam experience when senators like [Arkansas Democrat J. William] Fulbright began to hammer Johnson on our aims and goals and credibility....
“It’s a cumulative process. It takes time. We’re not at the full-blown stage on this yet. But it’s heading in that direction.”
Cheney spokesman Steve Schmidt said the vice president thought the controversy was mostly partisan politics. “He understands that it’s natural for political opponents to seize on a statement and try to make political hay of it,” Schmidt said.
But other administration officials and Republican elders, who spoke anonymously because they feared retribution from the White House, said the vice president had blundered.
“This is like the aircraft carrier,” said former Ronald Reagan aide Michael K. Deaver, referring to Bush’s announcement of victory in Iraq from the deck of the Abraham Lincoln in 2003. “It simply has given an extended talking point to those people who are opposed to the war and want to make the administration look bad.... I don’t think it’s a big problem. It’s a problem.”
He rejected any parallels with Vietnam. “There isn’t any comparison between this and Vietnam,” Deaver said. “There aren’t student demonstrators all over the country. There aren’t National Guardsmen tear-gassing people.... We’re a long way from that.
“Bush’s back is not against the wall politically. He still has a lot of leeway.”
But complaints about the administration’s credibility issued last week from some supporters of the war as well as opponents, and from Republicans as well as Democrats.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a supporter of the war, called on Bush to deliver a tougher message to the public about the danger of losing in Iraq. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another supporter, complained that although the Pentagon claimed it had trained 170,000 Iraqi security forces, it refused to say how many were ready for military operations -- “the key element to success,” McCain said.
Underlying their criticism was a steady erosion in public support for the war.
“We will lose this war if we leave too soon. And what is likely to make us do that? The public going south,” Graham told Rumsfeld. “And that is happening, and that worries me greatly.”
Several recent polls have found that a majority of Americans now believe that the United States made a mistake in going to war in Iraq, and increasing numbers -- but not a majority -- said they want U.S. troops to be withdrawn immediately.
“What’s interesting in this decline in support for the war is that it has sprung from the public itself,” said pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center. “It wasn’t led by politicians or by an antiwar movement. It started back in May, when the focus in Washington was on other issues.”
Bush acknowledged Saturday that maintaining U.S. public support for the war was critical. “The terrorists’ objective is to break the will of America and of the Iraqi people before democracy can take root,” he said.
Bush will try to repair the damage Tuesday evening when he speaks at Ft. Bragg, N.C. Aides say that the president will point to reports that an increasing number of insurgents in Iraq appear to be fighters from other Arab countries, bolstering his argument that Iraq is “a central front in the war on terrorism.”
But officials acknowledged that the underlying problems will take more than one speech to dispel.
“Senators are hearing from back home: If things are going so well, why do we hear every morning that 30 people have been killed in Baghdad?” said a top Republican advisor who refused to be identified.
Meanwhile, leading Democrats, who had largely fallen silent on Iraq after successful elections were held there Jan. 30, have been emboldened to step up their criticisms. Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, called on the administration to consider setting a timetable for withdrawing troops if Iraq’s constitutional negotiations got bogged down.
Biden said he opposed setting a timetable but exhorted the administration to set clearer benchmarks for progress and to be more candid about failures.
In the Democrats’ official response Saturday to Bush’s radio address, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security advisor to President Carter, said: “This war has been conducted with tactical and strategic incompetence.... The president should provide the American people with a plan describing the key elements of a successful strategy in Iraq.”
Times staff writers Mark Mazzetti and Richard Simon contributed to this report.