Rupert Cornwell: Republicans fear political price of failure

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The autumn of 2006 may go down as a turning point for an obstinate American president's belief that he could shape reality in a far-off country with force of arms and the power of democracy.

George Bush prides himself on his resolve, his intuitive grasp of the great sweep of history, and his belief that democracy is the panacea for the world's problems, no matter how complicated. Above all, he is convinced that any meaningful change of course is an admission of error and weakness.

Thus, as Iraq descends into what almost every one but the President and his coterie of advisers considers civil war, the White House remains unwavering in its mantra of "stay the course", or as Tony Blair has it, "getting the job done".

But in the end, both Mr Bush's version of reality and the reality on the ground in Iraq may be trumped by a third reality: the immediate and unavoidable reality of US domestic politics, three weeks before the most important mid-term elections in more than a decade.

A CNN poll has found that 64 per cent of Americans now oppose the war in Iraq. Mr Bush's own approval ratings are back again in the mid-30s. You may not accept last week's report that 650,000 Iraqis have died because of the war, but news reports confirm that civilian deaths are at record levels.

Forget Mark Foley and his congressional pages, forget jobs and the economy: Iraq is the overriding issue, and it is propelling Mr Bush's Republicans towards what could be a watershed defeat in November.

Sir Richard Gannatt, whose remark that the presence of foreign troops "exacerbates" the Iraq problem proves again that in politics, the definition of a "gaffe" is to tell the truth. Here, it is an open secret that the retired generals who have criticised the war speak for senior fellow-officers still in uniform and barred from speaking out.

Senior Republicans have fewer inhibitions. Chuck Hagel of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said: "We clearly need a new strategy. By any measure we're in a lot of trouble in Iraq."

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