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Unsuccessful mission: Bush fails to sell war

Published August 27, 2006 12:38 am

A year since his last visit, even Utahns are increasingly skeptical about U.S. odds of success in Iraq
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When President Bush walked into the Salt Palace on Aug. 22, 2005, it was with the intention of launching a national campaign to reverse sagging support for himself and the war in Iraq.

Bush will return to the Salt Lake City convention center Thursday having failed in that mission.

Inexorably tied to successes and failures in Iraq - a war Americans increasingly are seeing as contrary to the security of the country - the president's popularity has plummeted even lower than it was last year at this time.

The fledgling Iraqi government - and the U.S. military that is propping it up - have reached some significant benchmarks over the past year. But steps toward building stability, security and democracy in Iraq have been overshadowed by a struggling economy, dogged insurgency and intensifying civil war.

And Americans - even those in Utah, where Bush continues to enjoy strong support - are growing weary.

This is the (safe) place: A Salt Lake Tribune poll conducted last week found 59 percent of Utahns rate Bush's performance in office as "good" or "excellent" - a rate unmatched elsewhere. Only three other states continue to give Bush majority support, pollster SurveyUSA found earlier this month.

"Nothing seems to put a dent in Utah's support for President Bush," said Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

Yet the situation in Iraq appears to be growing more troublesome even to Bush's most devout disciples.

"I've found, even in talking to strong supporters of the president, people are almost in despair over the war," Jowers said. "They're not optimistic about how it will work out."

Indeed, The Tribune poll found even those who back Bush are feeling dour about the war. Just one in five Bush supporters said they felt better this year than last about the chances for success in Iraq.

And among Utahns who said they don't support Bush's overall performance, the pollsters found not a single person who was feeling more optimistic about the war this year than last. Overall, 42 percent of Utahns polled said they feel less optimistic about Iraq than one year ago.

Lost in the storm: Bush's speech last year at the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Salt Lake City painted the conflict in Iraq as part of an honorable continuum of "the great struggles" of the past century. Looking over a crowd of thousands of veterans, the president declared "a new generation of Americans is defending our flag and our freedom in the first war of the 21st century."

It was a message he was set to deliver before loyal audiences across the nation - but it was a theme the president was never able to fully develop.

As Bush delivered a similar message two days later before a military crowd in Idaho, National Weather Service officials were cautiously watching "Tropical Depression 12," a pattern of swirling clouds over the southeastern Bahamas.

The following day the depression was renamed. They called it Katrina.

"That just dominated all other issues - local and national issues," Utah Republican Party Chairman Joe Cannon said. "There's no question that Katrina sucked the wind out of everything, including the president's views on Iraq.

"And that was the story for months."

A new nightmare: The nation woke from its Gulf Coast nightmare to find the security situation in Iraq ever worsening. The following months brought scandals involving the rape and slaying of Iraqi civilians, an influx of senior military leaders questioning the war, new revelations about how the invasion of Iraq was originally sold to the American public and, perhaps most significant, increased fighting between Iraq's religious factions.

Even as Bush vowed to "stay the course" in Iraq, the course was changing.

"The main thing that happened in 2006 is a looming civil war," said Michael O'Hanlon, who tracks reconstruction and security data relating to Iraq for the Brookings Institution. "We're now fighting a different war than we thought we were."

Rather than only trying to control an insurgency, American troops now find themselves in the middle of a sectarian conflict that has grown particularly violent in the country's multiethnic capital, Baghdad.

O'Hanlon noted there has been some economic progress. His index of Iraq data shows, for example, that crude oil production and exportation appear to be nearing pre-war levels.

"But security trumps all other developments," he said. "While I would not say it has been a complete failure yet, it has certainly been a bad year.

"The numbers unambiguously back that up."

Brookings' data suggest tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed this year - with the chart tracking the estimated dead rising steadily from month to month.

Stand up, stand down: Perhaps the best indicator of the poor security situation in Iraq - and the one that most personally touches Americans - is the continuing deployment of U.S. troops.

Last year, Bush told VFW members "when Iraqi forces can defend their freedom by taking on more and more of the fight to the enemy, our troops will come home."

There were about 183,000 Iraqis working as soldiers, police officers and border patrol agents at the time Bush made that promise. This month, the U.S. Department of State reported that 277,600 Iraqis were on duty - an increase of 52 percent.

U.S. troop strength decreased by just 3 percent during the same period, according to State Department reports.

Though there has not been a significant decrease in troop levels over the past 12 months, the American-led coalition has suffered fewer casualties as its troops increasingly have taken an observer's role in the conflict.

In the 12 months before Bush's last visit to Utah, 953 troops were killed in Iraq. In the same period since, that number has been reduced to 816.

But as Iraqis have increasingly turned their fury inward, Americans appear to be having a harder time justifying the sacrifice of their service members.

Defection: When the U.S. military announced in June that its forces had killed al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Bush proclaimed "a victory in the global war on terror" and "an opportunity for Iraq's new government to turn the tide of this struggle."

But Bush himself conceded the sectarian violence Zarqawi helped ignite likely would continue.

And because he was correct on that point, even Zarqawi's death seemed to do little to stem a steady defection of conservative pundits away from Bush's Iraq policies.

As the violence in Iraq grew ever more sectarian, prominent right-wing editorialists began questioning whether a U.S. military victory was even possible.

"One can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed," William F. Buckley Jr. wrote in February.

Buckley, founder of the conservative National Review magazine, soon was joined by fellow right-wing columnists Rich Lowry and George Will, who wrote in March, "almost three years after the invasion, it is still not certain whether, or in what sense, Iraq is a nation."

Theirs were prominent voices, but hardly isolated among conservative Americans.

At the time of Bush's last speech in Salt Lake City, about 38 percent of adults nationwide supported his handling of the war in Iraq, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll. This month, the same pollsters found just 30 percent of the country still felt confident in Bush's war leadership.

Among those who have given up their support for Bush, said John Zogby, one of the nation's leading pollsters, are "significant chunks of his own base."

"It's particularly troubling among Republicans, conservatives, born-again Christians, NASCAR fans, the investor class, veterans and - for me, one group I follow quite closely - Wal-Mart shoppers," he said. "These are all people who gave [the president] a substantial majority in 2004 and where he's now polling significantly lower."

Zogby said nearly every group he polls has one chief concern. "It takes an overriding issue to just open up the floodgates like this," he said. "And that issue is Iraq."

So rather than coming to Utah to shore up his base, as Zogby and other political observers opined Bush was doing last year, the president may now simply be returning to a place where he has "a safe corner."

Fighting from the corner: But even if he is returning to a safe corner, it does not appear Bush will be cowering there.

Though many political observers say the president's Iraq policies are threatening Republican fortunes in midterm elections, just 2 1/2 months away, a recent Bush news conference may be an indication of the tenor of his Salt Lake City speech.

"What matters is that in this campaign that we clarify the different points of view," Bush said Monday. "There are a lot of people in the Democrat Party who believe that the best course of action is to leave Iraq before the job is done - period - and they're wrong."

Though the president recently has curtailed his conventionally positive assessments of Iraq, his political adviser, Karl Rove, has urged Republicans to engage in a strong defense of Bush and the war in order to win in November.

That strategy may work in Utah, where Rove attended school and Republican politicians enjoy widespread support, but the rest of the country may be no more willing to follow Bush's lead in the next year as they were in the last.

mlaplante@sltrib.com