Geoffrey Kemp: The dangers of Iraq for Mr Bush's election prospects

From the Cairncross Lecture given in Oxford by the Director of Regional Strategic Programmes at the Nixon Centre, Washington DC
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It would be premature to pronounce US operations in Iraq as either a success or a failure from the perspective of the coalition. Undoubtedly, the majority of Iraqis are delighted to be out from under the yoke of Saddam Hussein.

Very few, apart from some in the Sunni triangle, wish to go back to the days of Saddam, which were barbarous by any standards. However, it is not clear that Iraqis are yearning for western democracy when they do not have electricity and their daughters cannot go out on the street at night. Thus, it comes back to the reality that the security situation has to be put in order before the more grandiose projects for reconstruction and sovereignty can be implemented.

The danger is that the United States finds itself in an election year with a lot of politics of its own to take into account. It is often said that the American public has a notoriously short attention span. This is not true. Americans are prepared to pay the price for occupation, both in terms of casualties and money, provided that they see clear progress. After all, American forces still remain in Germany today and over 30,000 sit between Seoul and the 38th parallel in Korea.

The challenge for the Bush administration is that its credibility has been questioned, both on the reasons for going to war and on the management of the post-war occupation. Unless more support is forthcoming from Europe and other major powers, for instance India, more and more Americans will ask why they should be forced to pay the full price. The temptation will then be to find an exit strategy that includes a significant withdrawal of American forces and major cutbacks in American grants and loans.

These are the challenges that President Bush faces in the coming year. If you would ask me to predict how important Iraq will be and whether Bush will be re-elected President, I will say the following: if a year from now - that is to say, a few weeks from the November 2004 elections - the major news coming out of Iraq is about problems to do with reconstruction and governance, then Bush will be able to say that, yes, there are problems but we are making headway.

If, however, the dominant problems relate to security, with continued American casualties, then my guess is that this would be very negative and could spell trouble for the Bush administration, for Europe and for the region.