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U.S.: Bush's Potential Challengers Criticize Policy On Terror War

Public dissent is beginning to emerge in America nearly 10 months into the war against terrorism. Two prominent members of the Democratic Party -- who may seek the presidency in the 2004 election -- have recently made pointed criticism of U.S. President George W. Bush's handling of the conflict. But Bush's conduct of the war is widely popular. Our correspondent Andrew F. Tully in Washington spoke with political analysts about whether criticism of Bush could be an asset or a liability in a campaign to challenge him two years from now.

Washington, 2 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- At least two men who are considering whether to challenge George W. Bush for the American presidency in 2004 have begun to question his handling of the war against terrorism.

On 29 July, Al Gore, who narrowly lost the presidential race to Bush in 2000, complained that allied forces have not yet found Osama bin Laden, whom the U.S. blames for the 11 September attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

Speaking in New York, Gore -- a member of the Democratic Party -- also said Bush, a Republican, is not committing enough coalition forces to Afghanistan to keep it from falling into the hands of the warlords who have traditionally controlled the country.

Another Democrat, Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), said much the same recently. He said the coalition assault on Tora Bora in southern Afghanistan failed to find bin Laden because it relied too much on Afghan forces, not U.S. troops.

On a tangential matter, Kerry has repeatedly criticized Bush's foreign policy -- particularly his Middle East policy -- calling it unfocused.

Such criticism could be risky for Gore or Kerry, if either receives the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. Ever since 11 September, the approval ratings for the president's conduct of the war against terrorism have been above 70 percent in virtually every public opinion poll.

Bill Frenzel, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives (R-Minnesota), is now a political analyst at the Brookings Institution, an independent Washington policy research center. Frenzel told RFE/RL that Bush approval ratings are high on other issues as well.

"That makes it very difficult for people to criticize even policies that are not connected with the war on terrorism. I think most of that popularity derives from the war on terrorism."

Throughout the 20th century, Frenzel says, American presidents, regardless of party affiliation, were for the most part allowed to conduct wars as they saw fit. He recalled that Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, served four terms while he confronted the Great Depression in the 1930s and World War II in the 1940s. And he said Republican Richard Nixon won re-election handily in 1972 during the Vietnam War.

"We all remember [that] Richard Nixon, who was not the most beloved of presidents even at the peak of his popularity, just destroyed George McGovern, who ran against the president on the subject of the war in Vietnam."

Gore also has accused the Bush administration of using the war to try to divide the nation between those who support its handling of the conflict and those who question it. For example, Vice President Richard Cheney said in May that to criticize the conduct of the war is partisan and -- as he put it -- "totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war."

Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, says Cheney is merely playing politics himself, and that his statement is common among members of an administration that is conducting a war.

"No one ever buys [accepts] that. I think dissent is an appropriate response to disagreement about war policies, whether the administration is Democratic or Republican. That was certainly true in the 1960s under Lyndon Johnson, it was true under Richard Nixon -- both a Democratic and Republican president on Vietnam. It's going to be true on this one if the war doesn't go well."

In fact, Sabato says he does not see as much risk as Frenzel does in challenging Bush's handling of the war on terrorism. He says a potential candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination is focused not on voters, but on party activists, those who are likely to have influence in the nominating process, either by attending nominating meetings, called "caucuses," or by voting in primary elections.

It is only after a candidate wins the nomination that he must take his criticism of Bush's conduct of the war before the American voters at large.

"If the war is going well and the economy is secure, probably no Democrat will beat George W. Bush [in the 2004 presidential election]. But if the economy's still shaky and if the war isn't going well, then Democrats probably will challenge Bush on both fronts, both foreign and domestic."

The presidential election is more than two years away. But this year, in November, Americans will vote in what are called "mid-term" congressional elections, when all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and one-third of the 100 Senate seats are at stake.

The Democrats hold a one-seat majority in the Senate, while the Republicans hold an 11-seat majority in the House of Representatives, which also has two members not affiliated with either of those parties. Because of these slim margins, the two leading parties are looking for every advantage to increase their numbers in Congress.

Both Frenzel and Sabato say Gore's and Kerry's criticisms of Bush's conduct of the war probably will have little if any impact on those elections. As Sabato put it, races for Congress, particularly for the lower house, tend to focus on local issues, not foreign policy and conducting wars.

According to Sabato, politicians like Gore and Kerry may want to have influence over the congressional elections, but realistically they know that they should focus their energies on the presidential campaign of 2004.