Washington, 12 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- If Bush intends to improve his standing with the American people -- especially on Iraq -- he made it clear yesterday that he's not going to do it by changing his war strategy.
Some military critics say he has committed too few forces to fighting the insurgency. There are currently 139,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. More than 1,800 American military personnel have died since the war began.
Peace activists say it is time for Bush to begin withdrawing troops now.
But as he has many times before, Bush vowed to maintain the current course of his Iraq policy, and he rejected any idea of a withdrawal of U.S. forces until the Iraqis can defend themselves against the insurgency, led at least in part by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
"Pulling the troops out would send a terrible signal to the enemy," Bush said. "Immediate withdrawal would say to the Zarqawis of the world and the terrorists of the world and the bombers who take innocent life around the world, 'The United States is weak, and all we've got to do is intimidate and they'll leave.' Pulling troops out prematurely will betray the Iraqis."
This doesn't surprise Bill Frenzel, a member of Bush's Republican Party who served for two decades in the U.S. House of Representatives. He told RFE/RL that Bush doesn't change policy just because of polls.
Still, Frenzel has no doubt that Bush is trying to improve his standing, even though he can't run for president again.
"The public apparently, in the polls, is thinking that his strategy is not good," Frenzel said. "[But] this president tends to go the way he feels is right, rather than worrying terribly about his image. But no president can ignore his image. Not only is it for his legacy, but it's also to keep his standing up so that he can achieve some of his purposes during the last part of his second term."
Because he won't change course on the war, Frenzel said, Bush needs some other way to recover footing with the public. He said he has few options on foreign policy, but he can always pursue some domestic programs -- such as tax reform -- that might endear him to Americans.
"Immediate withdrawal would say to the Zarqawis of the world and the terrorists of the world and the bombers who take innocent life around the world, 'The United States is weak, and all we've got to do is intimidate and they'll leave.' Pulling troops out prematurely will betray the Iraqis." -- Bush
"Well, I don't think it will change people's minds [about Bush's Iraq strategy], and it certainly won't change the minds of the real [antiwar] activists," Frenzel said. "But on the other hand, if it looks like there is a genuine domestic-policy initiative that the public likes, I think that can make a difference in the total [polling] numbers."
But will that kind of option work?
Allan Lichtman, a professor of American political history at American University in Washington, said no. He said any such domestic proposals likely would be so expensive that the government wouldn't be able to follow through.
"I think what he [Bush] does has to be based in reality, not in public relations," Lichtman said. "Obviously launching some kind of very popular domestic initiative might help. However, he's hemmed in by his own policies. After all, we have a deficit in the many hundreds of billions of dollars. It's going to be very difficult to launch any kind of program delivering real concrete benefits to Americans under these fiscal circumstances."
But Lichtman agreed with Frenzel that Bush is willful. He said the president is so inflexible on Iraq policy that he is like a hedgehog, stubbornly curling up for protection when attacked, hoping the threat will go away.
Bush may think his single-minded Iraq policy may be vindicated over time, Lichtman said. But the rhetoric he uses now, to some success, with the American people, will mean little to future historians.
"Of all the myriad strategies, the one he's most likely to pick is the one he's most comfortable with: Admit no mistakes, make no major adjustments, continue pushing ahead," Lichtman said. "And history will judge on what actually happened, not on what is said."
In fact, Lichtman said, it may be too late for Bush to do anything to improve his standing because he's already set the U.S. economy and foreign policy on an unalterable course.