Handwriting on the Wall

Public support for the war in Iraq has eroded substantially over the past few months and doubts are mounting over President Bush’s ability to stop the bleeding and recapture the hearts and minds of the American people.

With the military death count approaching 2,000 and the operation’s price tag settling in at $300 billion, support for the war is at low tide. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll this month, 54 percent of respondents felt it was a mistake for the United States to send troops to Iraq. Back in November 2001, when hostilities were first contemplated, the same poll showed 74 percent favoring action.

Suddenly, organized opposition to the war is galvanizing. Anti-war activists are rallying behind Cindy Sheehan, who set up camp near Bush’s Prairie Chapel Ranch outside Crawford, Texas, demanding a meeting with the world’s most powerful figure to discuss her son, Pvt. Casey Sheehan, killed in action.

“All I want is for President Bush to take one hour out of his vacation and meet with me before another mother’s son dies in Iraq,” Sheehan said. “You don’t use our country’s precious sons and daughters unless it’s absolutely necessary to defend America. Mr. President, it is time to level with the American people: why did we go to war, why have so many died, and when are they coming home?”

And there are rumblings within the president’s own party. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a Vietnam War veteran, acknowledges that the United States can’t afford failure in Iraq, but expresses distaste over how the administration has chosen to proceed.

“We’ve got to have a clear objective of what it is we want to do in Iraq,” Hagel recently told those attending the Nebraska American Legion’s annual convention. “We went into Iraq and it was all about regime change, weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam was not complying with U.N. mandates. Now the objective is to fight terrorists. That wasn’t the objective when we went in. There were no terrorists. As bad as Saddam was, and he was bad and needed to be taken out, but he was not in league with terrorists.”

The American public will remain uneasy about the effort without a sense of mission. Hagel maintains that the present climate places the military under “an intense burden.”

“They are going to try to do the job,” he said. “But we need to assure that whatever policy that puts them in, that situation is as good a policy, as smart a policy and winnable a policy as we can provide for them. To do anything less is wrong.”

While Bush continues to insist he doesn’t run the nation based on polls, the White House is concerned about the public’s ebbing enthusiasm for the Iraq mission, and hopes the president’s “stay the course” message eventually will leach through.

But John Zogby, president of Zogby International, a polling firm based in Utica, N.Y., said it appears Bush has lost the public’s confidence regarding the operation in Iraq.

“I learned in the first poll we conducted after 9/11 that Americans still want their wars to be quick, they want them won and they want them over so the troops can come home,” Zogby said. “It’s curious, but right now there’s a mixed message coming out of Washington. The generals are saying we’ll begin some troop withdrawal come hell or high water in 2006, but the president is saying we’re going to stay there with as much force as we need until we get the job done. It’s a contradiction.”

Barring “anything dramatic one way or another,” Zogby said, it could prove impossible for Bush to regain public support for the war.

“Our polling shows over 60 percent who say it wasn’t worth it,” Zogby said. “Iraq has become Vietnamized.”

Comparisons to the Vietnam War are something the Bush administration has studiously avoided. Polls show the American public initially favored U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia when President Lyndon Johnson escalated the conflict in 1965. That support began to gradually erode until the summer of 1968, when, in the aftermath of the costly Tet Offensive, opinion turned negative.

Vietnam divided the nation and forced Johnson to abandon his re-election plans. It remains today, according to a Scripps Howard News Service survey, the most unpopular American war.

Zogby noted that Bush has “proved himself to be pretty resilient” and has benefited from the fact that opposition Democrats have failed to muster an effective counterbalance.

Karlyn Bowman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said public support could grow depending on events in Iraq.

“We’ve seen slight upticks in support after events such as Saddam’s capture and the elections,” she said. “It is possible that if the coverage of adoption of the constitution is positive, Americans will feel a little better.”

Bowman acknowledges that current polling firmly establishes that Americans “aren’t happy with the situation.” But she also notes the data shows “most Americans still believe that we have to stick it out.”

Gallup’s numbers, she said, show those supporting immediate U.S. troop withdrawal have risen from about 15 percent two years ago to slightly over 30 percent today. Meanwhile, the proportion saying the United States should send more troops has remained constant at about 15 percent.

“It’s hard to tease this out of the polls, but my sense is that Americans still want to try to finish the job there, which means turning more and more responsibility over to the Iraqis,” she said. “They always thought that the peace would be more difficult than the war.”

Immanuel Wallerstein, a senior research scholar at Yale and former president of the International Sociological Association, said the public is still split on the wisdom of the Iraq war but that Bush’s effort to rally support is “basically shot.”

“He started with a lot of people for him and a certain number against him,” Wallerstein said. “But the whole middle has lost faith. They see no light at the end of the tunnel, and they’re right _ there is no light at the end of the tunnel.”

The public’s dominant mood, he said, seesaws from wanting the United States to send more troops, to wanting to bring them all home, Wallerstein said. But the message is the same in each case _ “we can’t go on like this.”

“I don’t see the military situation really changing in Iraq and I don’t see political change taking place in Iraq either,” he said.

(Contact Bill Straub at StraubB(at)shns.com)