The controversy over U.S. President George W. Bush's public mention of now-discredited intelligence about Iraq is deepening. But will it hurt Bush's chances for re-election next year?
Washington, 15 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Two organizations that opposed the war in Iraq are broadcasting a television advertisement throughout the United States that shows unflatteringly bellicose photos of U.S. President George W. Bush and which includes the following statement:
"George Bush told us Iraq was a nuclear threat. He said they were trying to purchase uranium, that they were rebuilding their nuclear facilities. So we went to war. Now there's evidence we were misled, and almost every day, Americans are dying in Iraq. We need the truth, not a cover-up."
The ads, by the groups Win Without War and MoveOn.org, may be a reflection of a growing shift in U.S. public opinion about whether Bush misled the nation when he cited a report about Iraq seeking uranium in Africa as one of several reasons for using military force to depose Saddam Hussein. The White House has since acknowledged that the report was based on forged documents.
Polls find significant erosion in public approval for Bush's presidency and for his handling of the Iraq war and its aftermath. In a survey conducted for the ABC television network and "The Washington Post" newspaper, 57 percent say the war in Iraq was worth fighting, down from 70 percent at the end of April. Half of the respondents say they believe the Bush administration intentionally exaggerated the Iraqi evidence. In a poll conducted by "Newsweek" magazine, 38 percent of respondents say they believe Bush deliberately misled the American people.
Political analysts attribute this to Bush's use of the faulty report, and to continuing U.S. casualties in Iraq. Thirty-two U.S. soldiers have been killed by hostile fire since 1 May. They note that the growing controversy marks the first time the Bush administration has had to deal with anything so potentially damaging.
The problem of exaggerated intelligence arises from 16 words Bush spoke during his State of the Union address in January. The annual speech is used by presidents to outline their agendas for the coming months. Bush used the occasion, in part, to make the case for war to disarm Iraq.
In doing so, he said British intelligence had learned that Iraq recently tried to buy uranium in Africa.
A key document supporting that claim was later determined to be forged, and on 7 July the White House said the statement should not have been included in Bush's speech. After months of virtual silence on the war, Bush's opponents in Congress and some who hope to challenge him for the presidency next year -- all members of the opposition Democratic Party -- have begun to accuse his administration of either misinterpreting intelligence or deliberately misleading the American public.
Bill Frenzel, a member of Bush's Republican Party and a former member of Congress from Minnesota, said Bush undoubtedly will pay at least some political price for the error.
Frenzel is now a scholar of politics at the Brookings Institution, a private policy-research center in Washington. He told RFE/RL that he does not believe Bush's statement -- which he called a "16-word boo-boo," or insignificant error -- was meant to be a central part of his speech, but was merely an illustration of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
"Every time a president makes any kind of a slip, it opens him up to question. On the other hand, my judgment of the famous 16-word boo-boo is that it is not necessarily a terrible one. But at this point it looks like an embarrassing gaffe," Frenzel said.
But others see the incident as potentially devastating to the president. One is Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington.
Brown said the uranium claim was an important part of Bush's overall argument that Hussein was a threat to the Middle East, to the United States, and to its allies because he was pursuing weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. He noted the president focused attention on this argument by including the statement in so important a speech.
"It's not simply the 16-word statement, but the 16-word statement coupled with the [postwar] failure to find any evidence that Iraq had an active [weapons] program that I think makes people feel in retrospect that perhaps what was presented as an airtight case was not quite so airtight," Brown said.
Brown told RFE/RL that this feeling is even shared by many who believe the United States was right to invade Iraq, including some members of the U.S. Congress who last year voted for a resolution authorizing military action.
The political damage Bush has suffered undermines the candor that Americans have seen in their president, according to Alan Lichtman, a professor of U.S. history at American University in Washington.
"Part of George Bush's appeal was that he was the plain-speaking, straight-talking Texan, the kind of guy you can rely on to give it to you like it is in a time of trouble, and to act accordingly. All of a sudden, not only do his statements about the nuclear weapons program in Iraq seem to be questionable, but in general, the case that Iraq posed a real threat to the United States seems to be unraveling," Lichtman said.
On 11 July, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Tenet took the blame for the error in the State of the Union speech. He said the CIA previewed the address and should have suggested that the offending passage be removed.
Both Lichtman and Brown said it is obvious that Tenet has agreed to be the scapegoat in an effort to spare Bush, and that voters will see through the ploy.
Brown said Americans could lose respect for Bush if they perceive him as not having the courage to shoulder the blame himself. Lichtman agrees, saying that "passing the buck" to Tenet will further diminish Bush in the eyes of a once-respectful public. Without popular support, Lichtman said, Bush may not be able to get Congress to pass his legislative agenda.
"The passing of the buck is simply going to diminish this extraordinary image George Bush has built in the aftermath of 9/11. And even if it doesn't destroy his election prospects, it severely undermines his ability to govern," Lichtman said.
Some American tourists visiting their nation's capital last week, interviewed by RFE/RL, expressed confusion about the significance of Bush citing faulty intelligence in his speech. Others, though, had very definite views on the issue.
Lauren Raymer, a housewife and mother from Cleveland, Ohio, said Bush must be more careful about what material is allowed in his speeches. "It just, to me, reaffirms his administration's lack of credibility in a lot of areas. I mean, I know that the president doesn't write this speech, but at the same time he has to be responsible for what comes out of his mouth when he's at Congress," she said.
But David Martin, a 23-year-old student at Brigham Young University in Utah, said he believes Bush is merely a victim of poor intelligence. But he conceded that the CIA and other agencies may have been pressured to manipulate intelligence to support a preconceived idea of the seriousness of Iraq's threat.
"That's not [Bush's] fault. He had other people giving him the intelligence. He had every reason to believe it. What might be questionable, however, is the pressure that he and other members of his administration were putting on the intelligence people to find this type of information that, in some senses, just didn't exist," Martin said.
It is too early to tell how public opinion in the U.S. will evolve on this issue. If Bush intends to win a second term as president, he will have to move quickly to demonstrate his good faith. The election is less than 15 months away, in November 2004. And advertisements like the one being broadcast by MoveOn.org and Win Without War will probably multiply over the next year.
(RFE/RL correspondent Stephanie Wells contributed to this report.)