Support for Bush dissolvesDavid Hoppe

Last week we learned that public approval of President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq has fallen to the same low point hit by Lyndon Johnson in 1968, during the war in Vietnam. The difference is that Johnson was coming to the end of his term. Public unhappiness with the way the war was going - a growing belief that Vietnam was unwinnable - prompted him to announce that he would not seek reelection. Bush, on the other hand, was reelected last November, just 10 months ago. As members of the Bush Administration are always eager to remind us, everything happening in the world today dates back to Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks that took place then still have the power to make us quake with fear and fury. And we always will, if this president can make it so.

Bush's tumble in the polls has come as a shock to many people, especially his fellow Republican politicians with their own elections looming in 2006. Suddenly that mandate Bush claimed for himself in the first flush of victory over John Kerry sounds a little too much like the mission he said was accomplished on the deck of that aircraft carrier. W does have a way of jumping - make that swan diving - to conclusions. Still, the rapidity with which the public has grown impatient with the war seems to have taken the blood and thunder crowd in both parties by surprise. This is buyer's remorse on a grand scale. What's going on?

As members of the Bush Administration are always eager to remind us, everything happening in the world today dates back to Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks that took place then still have the power to make us quake with fear and fury. And we always will, if this president can make it so. That's because the attacks didn't just define Bush's presidency - that would have happened no matter who was in office - they gave it a reason for being.

Prior to Sept. 11, Bush was in the doldrums. He'd been in office less than a year and things weren't going well - his popularity wasn't much higher than it is today. In that short time he had managed to alienate Jim Jeffords, the Republican senator from Vermont, to the point where Jeffords quit the party and declared himself an Independent, thereby scuttling the Republicans' calculated majority in the Senate and causing what looked like an intractable problem for Bush's legislative agenda.

But all that changed on Sept. 11. In the days that immediately followed the attacks, Bush had what patriotically puffed-up commentators were quick to call his Churchillian moment, addressing Congress and the country. He was followed by the Democrat and Republican leaders in the Senate, Daschele and Lott, who assured the world that, regardless of party, we were all Americans now. Lott looked particularly pleased to announce that traditional partisan differences no longer mattered.

What we would find out was that the attacks of Sept. 11 lit the fuse on a pre-existing desire for a war with Iraq. What exactly fed this desire - a longing to settle scores left over from Desert Storm in 1991, an appetite for Iraqi oil, the wish for a strategic position in the Middle East favoring Israel and threatening Iran - has yet to be fully aired.

Whatever: The terrorist attacks in this country became pretext for Bush launching an aggressive war on Iraq and calling it self-defense.

There's been little but bad news since. First the revelations that Iraq was neither a military threat (no weapons of mass destruction), nor that it had ties to the terrorist network that launched the attacks here. Then the discovery that the Iraqis weren't really keen on having us around. The insurgency. Roadside bombings. The destruction of Fallujah. Torture in Abu Ghraib. Almost 2,000 dead American soldiers. Tens of thousands of dead Iraqis. Hundreds of millions of dollars in profit for American contractors with ties to the administration.

During his presidential campaign in 2004, Bush insisted the war in Iraq represented the next phase of the effort to vanquish terrorism. We're fighting them there, he liked saying, so that we don't have to fight them here. Although his opponent, John Kerry, challenged the validity of connecting Iraq with Sept. 11, he did not challenge the war itself, arguing instead that he could do a better job of it.

Lacking a real choice on the issue, a slim majority of Americans opted to stick with their commander-in-chief.

This was not a mandate and it was not a vote of confidence for the war. It was a measure of how degraded our politics has become - with paternalistic elites in both parties driving life-and-death policy without so much as a serious debate. This situation continues. On the one hand, we have Mr. Bush refusing to take a break from his vacation to hear Cindy Sheehan out. But then there isn't a single Democrat contender for the presidency in 2008 willing to say that this is the wrong war at the wrong time, but that the war itself is wrong.

Many of the Americans who voted for Bush were not endorsing him so much as giving him the benefit of the doubt. In Texas parlance, they were saying put up or shut up. Now anyone who cares to look can see what's happening. Things aren't getting any better - and there's no end in sight.

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