Will Bush take hint on Iraq?



WASHINGTON -- Public opinion experts say Americans are sending President George W. Bush a clear message as he considers his options in Iraq: Bring the troops home.

Now, he'll have to decide whether to heed their advice. Presidents often struggle to reconcile their personal views with the will of the people, and the stakes are particularly high in wartime.

The public doesn't always get its way. The Vietnam War dragged on for five years after public support for it collapsed in 1968.

"Public opinion is not a referendum. It has no legal power," said John Mueller, a professor at Ohio State University who specializes in wartime public opinion. But it does affect a lame-duck president's ability to get his way, and as his public support wanes, so does his influence, across the board.

Lyndon Johnson was so hobbled by the Vietnam War that he declined to run for re-election. Harry Truman's approval rating plummeted to 23% during the Korean War -- a record low that still stands. He chose not to seek re-election as well.

Bush's overall job-approval rating hovers in the mid-30s, but support for his handling of Iraq has plummeted to the low to mid-20s, with disapproval around 70%, according to three national polls in mid-December.

Even without Iraq, Bush faces a tough final two years in office. Democrats will take control of Congress next month, and even congressional Republicans have been increasingly willing to distance themselves from the politically unpopular president.

War is a question of worth

Iraq looms over everything. Opinion experts say the striking thing about the war is how quickly it lost public support.

It took about 20,000 dead U.S. troops to convince most Americans that the Vietnam War was a mistake. It took just 1,500 in Iraq. The death toll is on track to top 3,000 next month.

Most experts say they think public attitudes toward war are driven by a relatively straightforward cost-benefit analysis: Are the costs of the war, in blood and treasure, worth the benefit of victory?

For most Americans, the equation was a no-brainer in World War II, even though more than 400,000 U.S. military personnel lost their lives out of 16 million who served. Cold War fears about the spread of communism helped maintain support for the wars in Korea and Vietnam, even as the death tolls mounted.

Polls indicate that the stakes in Iraq are less clear. One of the top concerns before the 2003 invasion, weapons of mass destruction, lost its punch when no such weapons were found. At that point, Bush shifted the emphasis to creating a democracy as a bulwark against terrorism.

"Given the right benefits -- protecting our own children, within our borders -- Americans would support all kinds of dramatic costs. The key is, at this moment, they just simply do not see the rationale," said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. "The public just doesn't see the benefit."

Looking for a timetable

To be sure, opposition to the war isn't unanimous, and many war critics share Bush's concerns about the consequences of a withdrawal. Though the vast majority of Democrats and independents have turned against the war, Republicans tend to support it. Bush and his aides also take solace in the fact that most Americans oppose immediate withdrawal.

But polling experts say the overall sentiment is clear. A majority of Americans think the war was a mistake, don't think it will make America safer and don't think the United States will win. Large majorities want to see the troops come home by early 2008.

"It's clear now that the public is looking for a timetable for withdrawal. If the administration doesn't like that, my advice would be, you have to somehow convince Americans of the benefits of continuing there," Newport said. "I think there's wisdom in the collective views of the public. A wise leader pays attention to it."

Jeffrey Kimball, a professor emeritus of history at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, said most presidents would take the hint, especially after voters registered their displeasure in the midterm elections. The Democratic victories were widely viewed as a repudiation of Bush's Iraq policy, although the president contends that the results were a call for bipartisan cooperation.

"The signals, to any rational leader, are there to see," said Kimball, the author of three books on the Vietnam War. "Normally people respond to that. I think he could salvage his presidency to a degree if he could admit some mistakes and then work to get out in a graceful way."

And if Bush ignores public sentiment?

"The only thing that could cut the war off is Congress cutting off the funds or impeachment," Mueller said. "They would have to impeach both" Vice President Dick "Cheney and Bush."

Neither option seems likely. However, the Democratic Congress could try to attach policy strings to war-funding bills that push toward withdrawal, and it could increase pressure for withdrawal by using congressional hearings to grill administration officials and highlight problems in Iraq.

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