Bush begins damage limitation exercise as conflict bites into his poll ratings

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The Independent US

Hours after setting out his goals for a stable, democratic Iraq, George Bush began the uphill task yesterday of rallying international support for an enterprise on which the future of his presidency now largely depends.

Hours after setting out his goals for a stable, democratic Iraq, George Bush began the uphill task yesterday of rallying international support for an enterprise on which the future of his presidency now largely depends.

In a speech at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Mr Bush delivered his opening salvo in a critical five weeks both at home and in Iraq, ahead of the 30 June handover of power to a transitional Iraqi government.

The address, the first of a promised six on Iraq over the coming month, came as new polls underlined the damage the chaos in Iraq has inflicted on his re-election hopes. Though Mr Bush remains in a statistical dead-heat with his Democratic challenger, John Kerry, he is trailing in several key battleground states.

The President's overall approval rating has dropped to between 41 and 47 per cent - which is in the historical range for incumbent presidents (most recently his own father) who have lost their bid for a second term. By an even larger margin, approaching two to one, Americans disapprove of his handling of the Iraq crisis.

Mr Bush set about mending the most important broken diplomatic fence by calling Jacques Chirac, the French President and the fiercest opponent of the 2003 war. The conversation came 10 days before Mr Bush travels to Europe, where he will meet M. Chirac and attend the 60th anniversary celebrations of the D-Day landings. The occasion is bound to provoke comparisons of the 1944 invasion with the mission in Iraq 59 years later.

Iraq, and Mr Bush's wider goal of democracy in the Middle East, will dominate the following week's summit of the G8 leading powers at Sea Island, Georgia, and a gathering of Nato heads of government in the Turkish capital, Ankara, just before the handover.

In his 30-minute address, a resolute but somewhat low-key Mr Bush set out a "five-point plan" for the birth of a stable, democratic and prosperous Iraq, again presenting the US attack of 15 months ago as a part of the war on terror.

"I sent American troops to Iraq to defend our security, not to stay as an occupying power," he declared. "I sent American troops to Iraq to make its people free, not to make them Americans. Iraqis will write their own history and find their own way."

The President acknowledged "difficult days ahead", even warning that the way forward might sometimes appear "chaotic". He conceded that violence would continue after the 30 June handover, but insisted: "Terrorists will not determine the future of Iraq."

As ever, Mr Bush was utterly certain of the righteousness of his cause. He admitted no mistake, or even misjudgement, in the year since his premature "mission accomplished" speech on a US aircraft carrier almost 13 months ago.

Essentially, the strategy set out by Mr Bush was less a plan than a list of five step-by-step objectives, each of them hostage to events on the ground.

The first, the 30 June transfer of sovereignty, is apparently set in stone.

But US officials admitted yesterday that Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations envoy, appears to be running into difficulties that may prevent him from finalising the new transitional government by the end of this week, as the President hoped.

Mr Bush pledged to maintain - and if necessary increase - the current 138,000-strong US force in Iraq, to maintain security. But the US military is already overstretched, and the Pentagon has had to transfer 4,000 men from the volatile Korean peninsula to make ends meet in Iraq. Where further reinforcements would come from is not clear.

The third step, the President declared, was the rebuilding of Iraq's infrastructure. But violence is not the only problem. Of $18bn of funds allocated by Congress, $15bn has not been disbursed.

"It's criminal this hasn't happened," said Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution. As a result, "a 60 per cent unemployment rate is killing support for the US".

Mr Bush's fourth declared goal is to enlarge international support for his Iraq project. In reality, the Anglo-American draft resolution now circulating among UN Security Council members is already running into opposition from the same "Old Europe" alliance of France, Germany and Russia that blocked UN approval of the March 2003 invasion.

One objection of the troika is that there is no more specific date for a coalition military withdrawal from Iraq. Another is the degree of sovereignty that will actually pass to the government selected by Mr Brahimi.

"Both of us basically support the same goal" of a free and democratic Iraq, President Bush said after his conversation with M. Chirac. But it was unlikely the differences had been bridged.

Mr Bush said in his speech at the Army War College that "full sovereignty" will be transferred to the incoming transitional government in Baghdad. But in security matters, crucial decisions will perforce be taken by the multinational force. According to the President, the incoming US ambassador, John Negroponte, who will present his credentials to the new Iraqi president in early July, will be an American ambassador like any other. But with a staff of 3,000 and branches in the main Iraqi cities, the US embassy is almost bound to be the de facto power behind the throne, analysts say.

Mr Bush made no mention of the proposal from Mr Kerry and other Democratic policy makers for a UN high commissioner.

The new Iraqi government "is obviously going to need help, it's only going to have partial control," Mr Pollack says. The top civilian "has to be an international figure, it shouldn't be an American".

The fifth and final stage of the Bush plan is supposed to happen over the course of 2005, with general elections by 31 January at the latest to a transitional assembly that will draw up a new constitution. Under this constitution, the first permanent and democratically empowered government of the new Iraq is supposed to be elected by the end of next year.

Public reaction to the speech divided along predictable party lines. Republicans hailed it as a forthright statement of a credible strategy. Democrats maintained it contained little new - and certainly not anything approaching an exit strategy. For Mr Kerry, who sets out his own prescription for Iraq tomorrow, the address was "mostly a rehash".

But the Democratic nominee presumptive has problems of his own. On paper at least, Mr Bush is doing much as Mr Kerry recommends, seeking to enlist international support and, as the Massachusetts senator urges, "taking the American face off the occupation".

Despite weeks of bad news for the President, Mr Kerry has failed to open up a real lead in the polls.

He is also hampered by his original congressional vote in October 2002, giving Mr Bush carte blanche to go to war. Americans, the polls say, do not believe the Democratic candidate would have a more effective policy for Iraq. They still feel Mr Bush is the better man to protect the country from the international terrorist threat.

But the biggest potential threat to Mr Bush comes from within his own party.

Strains arising from the Iraq crisis have provoked open dissent in Republican ranks. Whether his speech in Pennsylvania will put an end to the quarrelling remains to be seen - but it was divisions among Republicans that contributed to the defeat of George Bush Senior in 1992.

SOUNDBITES FROM THE SPEECH

"There are difficult days ahead, and the way forward may sometimes appear chaotic."

"We've seen images of a young American facing decapitation. This vile display shows a contempt for all the rules of warfare and all the bounds of civilised behaviour."

"The mission of our forces is demanding and dangerous. Our troops are showing exceptional skill and courage. I thank them for their sacrifices and their duty."

"A new Iraq will need a well-supervised, humane prison system. Under the dictator, prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture. That same prison became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonoured our country and disregarded our values."

"The interim government will exercise full sovereignty until elections are held."

"Iraqis are proud people who resent foreign control of their affairs, just as we would."

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