President George W. Bush, beset by public doubts about his leadership, has opted for a more humble tone in discussing the Iraq war, including admitting mistakes, as a way to rebuild his credibility, analysts said on Friday.
Bush’s shift in attitude during a Thursday news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair was an indication he understands the depth of public discontent with the war and the criticism that he is too stubborn to adjust his policies, they said.
Bush’s change in tone did not signal a change in policies, however. He and Blair refused to set a timetable for withdrawing troops and Bush said conditions on the ground would dictate future decisions about troop levels and commitments in Iraq.
“By acknowledging past mistakes, he hoped to build some credibility for the things he is still pushing for in Iraq,” said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas and a longtime Bush watcher.
“He is trying to show he is aware when things go wrong and he can make adjustments,” he said. “He knows no one will support him in the future unless he admits the mistakes of the past.”
Bush was unusually frank in discussing his mistakes in a war that has killed more than 2,400 Americans and thousands of Iraqis, saying he regretted the “Bring ’em on” challenge he issued to Iraqi insurgents in July 2003.
He said the remark was the “kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong message to people.”
Bush also said the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal was “the biggest mistake” in Iraq and had fueled anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. “We’ve been paying for that for a long period of time,” he said.
Bush made similar comments in January 2005 just after his re-election to a second term, but not with the same degree of candor.
CATCHING UP TO PUBLIC
While Bush’s blunt talk after the September 11 attacks and in the early stages of the Iraq war helped him build a public image of strength, his softer tone is a case of “catching up to public opinion,” said Karlyn Bowman, a poll analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
“If he wants to take people any further on Iraq, he has to show he understands where they are right now, and they have very deep doubts about the war,” she said. “This approach might help stop the bleeding a bit.”
Bush has seen his public approval ratings drop to around 30 percent, the lowest point of his presidency, in the past month, driven down by continued pessimism about Iraq and plunging confidence in his leadership.
Blair, his closest ally on the war, has suffered a similar fall in popularity in Britain, and members of the prime minister’s own Labor Party have urged him to step aside as soon as possible.
Blair was considerably less reflective during the news conference about mistakes made in Iraq, admitting only the attempt to rid Iraq’s government of members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party could have been handled better.
“I think the White House has learned that a certain degree of humility is probably a good thing and what the public expects,” said John Pitney, a political analyst at California’s Claremont-McKenna College.
“Aspects of Bush’s personality that were appealing a few years ago don’t play as well today and I think this is a recognition of that shift in perception,” he said.
Andrew Taylor, a professor at North Carolina State University, said the gunslinger talk of Bush’s first term in office did not work anymore.
“The unrepentant, stay-the-course, brash Bush would just look completely out of whack with reality and doesn’t serve any purpose for him at this point,” Taylor said.
“This repentant Bush is politically necessary for him to climb out of the hole and shore up some of the character qualities that Americans once saw in him as positive — that he is an in-charge, in-control guy.”
© Reuters 2006