Hit by Friendly Fire
With his polls down, Bush takes flak on Iraq from a host of critics--including some in his own party
Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel is angry. He's upset about the more than 1,700 U.S. soldiers killed and nearly 13,000 wounded in Iraq. He's also aggravated by the continued string of sunny assessments from the Bush administration, such as Vice President Dick Cheney's recent remark that the insurgency is in its "last throes." "Things aren't getting better; they're getting worse. The White House is completely disconnected from reality," Hagel tells U.S. News. "It's like they're just making it up as they go along. The reality is that we're losing in Iraq."
That's strikingly blunt talk from a member of the president's party, even one cast as something of a pariah in the GOP because of his early skepticism about the war. "I got beat up pretty good by my own party and the White House that I was not a loyal Republican," he says. Today, he notes, things are changing: "More and more of my colleagues up here are concerned."
Indeed, there are signs that the politics of the Iraq war are being reshaped by the continuing tide of bad news. Take this month in Iraq, with 47 U.S. troops killed in the first 15 days. That's already five more than the toll for the entire month of June last year. With the rate of insurgent attacks near an all-time high and the war's cost set to top $230 billion, more politicians on both sides of the aisle are responding to opinion polls that show a growing number of Americans favoring a withdrawal from Iraq. Republican Sens. Lincoln Chafee and Lindsey Graham have voiced their concerns. And two Republicans, including the congressman who brought "freedom fries" to the Capitol, even joined a pair of Democratic colleagues in sponsoring a bill calling for a troop withdrawal plan to be drawn up by year's end. "I feel confident that the opposition is going to build," says Rep. Ron Paul, the other Republican sponsor and a longtime opponent of the war.
Sagging polls. The measure is not likely to go anywhere, but Hagel calls it "a major crack in the dike." Whether or not that's so, the White House has reason to worry that the assortment of critiques of Bush's wartime performance may be approaching a tipping point. Only 41 percent of Americans now support Bush's handling of the Iraq war, the lowest mark ever in the Associated Press-Ipsos poll. And the Iraq news has combined with a lethargic economy and doubts about the president's Social Security proposals to push Bush's overall approval ratings near all-time lows. For now, most Republicans remain publicly loyal to the White House. "Why would you give your enemies a timetable?" asks House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. "[Bush] doesn't fight the war on news articles or television or on polls."
Still, the Bush administration is planning to hit back, starting this week, with a renewed public-relations push by the president. Bush will host Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari and has scheduled a major speech for June 28, the anniversary of the handover of power to an Iraqi government from U.S. authorities. But Congress's patience could wear very thin going into an election year. "If things don't start to turn around in six months, then it may be too late," says Hagel. "I think it's that serious."
Bush's exit strategy--which depends on a successful Iraqi political process--got a boost last week when Sunni and Shiite politicians ended weeks of wrangling over how to increase Sunni representation on the constitution-writing committee. Now, however, committee members have less than two months before their mid-August deadline. And given how long it took to resolve who gets to draft the document, it's hard to imagine a quick accord on the politically explosive issues they face.
"Do you think the U.S. should keep military troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized, or do you think the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible?"
Oct. 15-19 2004
Keep troops 57%
Bring home 36%
Dec. 1-16 2004
Jan. 5-9 2005
Feb. 16-21 2005
Jun. 8-12 2005
Keep troops 50%
Bring home 46%
Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press; GRAPHIC BY ROB CADY -- USN&WR
NOTE: Numbers do not add up to 100 because of those responding "unsure."
With Ilana Ozernoy and Terence Samuel
This story appears in the June 27, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.