U.S. President George W. Bush is responding to a steady decline in the polls and an equally steady rise in criticism over his Iraq policy. First, he shifted much of the responsibility for rebuilding Iraq from the Pentagon to his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. Then he and other members of his administration spent much of last week on a public relations counteroffensive.
Washington, 13 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Last week began with news that U.S. President George W. Bush was creating a panel called the Iraq Stabilization Group within the White House's National Security Council. That group will now shoulder much of the accountability for the country's reconstruction.
"This group formed within the National Security Council is aimed at the coordination of interagency efforts, as well as providing a support group to the Department of Defense and [top U.S. administrator in Iraq L. Paul] Bremer," Bush said.
The move was meant to show that the president, through National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice -- one of his closest advisers -- will be more directly involved in stabilizing Iraq and restoring its civil infrastructure.
Bush has faced growing criticism for what's been happening on the ground in Iraq -- including the daily attacks against U.S. soldiers -- and the amount of money being spent to maintain the troops and rebuild the country. Ninety-five U.S. soldiers have been killed by hostile fire in Iraq since Bush declared the end of major combat on 1 May -- 210 days since the war began.
In response, the Bush administration appears to be mounting a counteroffensive to address the concerns.
On 8 October, both Bush and Rice, in separate speeches, reiterated their belief that deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein did pose an imminent threat to the U.S. They cited the recent interim report of David Kay, who leads a U.S. team searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Kay says he has found materials and equipment that could have been used to make outlawed weapons and that the search is far from over.
On 9 October, speaking in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer -- the chief U.S. civil administrator in Iraq -- cited a long list of improvements in the country involving health care, education, security, civil infrastructure, and political progress. But he cautioned, "In six short months, we have accomplished a lot. But we are also aware that the progress we've made is only a beginning. A quarter of century of negligence, cronyism, and warmongering have devastated this country. Profound damage like that will not be repaired overnight."
On the same day, giving speeches in two American cities, Bush defended war in Iraq as the only way to enforce UN resolutions requiring Hussein to disarm. The president told his audience to have patience and said conditions in Iraq are not as bad as they are being portrayed in the press.
Bush also said the United States will press on with the war against terrorism, both in Iraq and elsewhere. Speaking in New Hampshire, Bush said, "The terrorists in Iraq believe that their attacks on innocent people will weaken our resolve. That's what they believe. They believe that America will run from a challenge. They are mistaken. Americans are not the running kind."
On 10 October, it was Vice President Dick Cheney's turn to speak out in an address to the Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington that supports the policies of the Bush administration. Like Bush, Rice, and Bremer, Cheney cited progress in Iraq and also took issue with critics of the president's Iraq policy.
Cheney said that to follow the advice of critics would be to take what he called "a course of inaction" in response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
"I would remind the critics of the fundamental case the president has made since September 11 -- terrorist enemies of our country hope to strike us with the most lethal weapons known to man and it would be reckless in the extreme to rule out action and save our worries until the day they strike," Cheney said.
Bush is enlisting the help of the most persuasive and knowledgeable people in his administration to join him in this political counteroffensive, but analysts say he may have begun the effort too late.
One is Allan Lichtman, a professor of U.S. political history at American University in Washington. Lichtman tells RFE/RL that Bush is the creation of the Iraq Stabilization Group is as much an exercise in public relations as it is a serious effort at reorganization.
"He's certainly hoping that [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld will not be the main face of Iraqi policy since he's so confrontational and so controversial. Far better the president and far better the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, who's a much more sympathetic figure. But in the end, they're not going to be able to talk their way out of this," Lichtman said.
Lichtman says Bush may have begun his counteroffensive too late because attitudes about the war have become settled in U.S. public opinion. He notes that a growing number of Americans believe that invading Iraq was not justified and that the objectives of the war are not clear.
Finally, Lichtman says, the American people -- and many of their leaders in Congress -- are opposed to spending as heavily as Bush has proposed to rebuild Iraq.
"There are some sure signs that an administration is in trouble politically with the American people, and they're all blinking quite brightly right now as they try to figure out what to do," Lichtman said. "Number one is to blame things on the press. George Bush, who's enjoyed tremendously positive press, is now complaining the press is too negative. Number two, start a new [public relations] offensive, precisely what they're now doing in these many ways. Number three, start the finger pointing, start the shake-up [personnel changes] inside. All the warning signals of an administration in trouble politically are now flashing."
But Simon Serfaty, a specialist in international diplomacy and military affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a private, nonpartisan policy research center in Washington, says Bush still has time to make -- or re-make -- his case for support in Iraq.
Serfaty says that despite persistent instability in Iraq, the lives of its residents have improved since Hussein was overthrown, and it is only right for Bush and his aides to remind the American people of that.
"Clearly, an earlier start [for the public relations campaign] would have been helpful, but nonetheless [Bush is] attempting now to reassert that he's still convinced that the war was necessary," Serfaty said.
Secondly, says Serfaty, "notwithstanding the fact that the postwar months have not been as easy as had been anticipated, there is some improvement and public opinion therefore ought to remain behind him."
Serfaty also notes that Kay's report on his search for Hussein's weapons programs can be interpreted in many ways. Bush supporters can cite the equipment that Kay's investigators found that could have been used for weapons production. And he notes that Bush's critics, meanwhile, can say that weapons themselves have yet to be found.
But Serfaty concedes that the Kay report provides a crucial argument to opponents of the Iraq war: "What the report does confirm at this point, however -- given the fact that after those few months, nothing has been found -- is that in February [and] March of this year, the risk of an attack [by Hussein] was not as imminent as the [Bush] administration made it [out] to be, and therefore that report reduces somewhat the case for pre-emption."
Meanwhile, the Gannett News Service reports that letters from American soldiers describing their successes in rebuilding Iraq have been appearing in hometown newspapers in the U.S. But the letters -- though signed by different soldiers -- are all the same. Six soldiers reached by Gannett said they agreed with the letter's thrust but none of the soldiers said he wrote it.
It's not clear who wrote the letters or organized sending them to the newspapers.