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Lindsay: Iraq Has Largely Shattered Bush’s Popularity

Interviewee: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 11, 2006

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James M. Lindsay, CFR Vice President and Director of Studies, says President Bush's public approval ratings "are down because he's in trouble in his foreign policy, most notably in Iraq." And Lindsay, who served on the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration, fears even "good news" from Iraq at this point would not help him much. "He has gone from being seen as a man in control of events, in charge of his administration, to being perceived as someone who does not command in government," says Lindsay, who holds the Maurice R. Greenberg Chair at CFR.

He says Bush has few options at this point to improve his standing significantly. "Well in foreign policy the president doesn't have a lot of options to improve his public standing, and I would argue more generally the administration's ability to fundamentally change its public approval ratings aren't very good." Lindsay says "the issue the president has in foreign policy is that many foreign policy issues really don't give you a very large political payoff. In the case of Iraq, the president can try to repackage the policy, announce some draw downs, but the public seems to have really sort of moved decisively to being unhappy with the Iraq war itself and the occupation."

Recent polling has shown President Bush's ratings at another all time low, as well as those of members of Congress from both parties. So the public obviously is not very pleased about the political leadership in Washington right now. What does that mean in the field of foreign affairs? Does that paralyze the president?

George Bush's public opinion ratings are at the lowest point in his presidency. Only Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter have had lower public approval ratings in the postwar era. This creates a major problem for President Bush in domestic politics, but it doesn't create as much difficulty or trouble for him in foreign policy. That largely has to do with the fact that under the American system of government, presidents have much more leeway in foreign affairs than they do in domestic policy. They need Congress less to act in foreign affairs than they need in domestic policy, so George Bush is in political trouble but he's not in foreign policy trouble because of his public approval ratings; it's actually the other way around, his public approval ratings are down because he's in trouble in his foreign policy, most notably in Iraq.

Now Iraq's a unique situation because if this new government should appear to be on the right road, if it should capture some major insurgent leaders there'll be a flood of good publicity. Would that change Bush's ratings?

Would good news from Iraq help the president? Yes. Will it help him a lot? No. And the reason is, over the last year and a half the president has had a string of policy defeats and setbacks that have really shaken the way the American public sees him. He has gone from being seen as a man in control of events, in charge of his administration, to being perceived as someone who does not command in government. The harsh word "incompetence" has been tossed around, and so the way the public has seen him is now quite different. Moreover, if you're looking into the issue of foreign affairs, the president's problems are not just Iraq anymore, but the whole issue of whether or not he has command over the issue of gas prices. A challenge for the administration is that it has very limited tools, if any, to control to price of gas, which is set in the world oil markets. But when it comes to practical politics, that doesn't matter much.

Bush still will have two years left in his term after the congressional elections this November. Is it too soon to predict how the congressional elections will turn out?

It's always too soon to predict how a congressional election is going to turn out because sometimes it surprises you. If you look at the most recent set of public opinion poll numbers, it's been very good news for Democrats. Democrats, on a whole variety of issues, are ahead of Republicans. As you mentioned at the start, the public is dissatisfied with Congress. That's usually good news for the party that's in the minority. On a variety of surprising issues, Democrats have pulled ahead. One recent poll question was, "Which party comes closer to sharing your moral values?" About 50 percent of the public said Democrats did, only 37 percent said Republicans.

That suggests that there's a real opportunity here for Democrats. But here's the downside for Democrats. Number one, Republicans know that they're in trouble and are doing everything they can do make this a self-denying prophecy. And indeed, one of the things that Republican candidates can do is distance themselves from George Bush, thereby denying the Democrats the lead they've begun to build up. The second problem Democrats face is that a lot of congressional races are going to be decided by local issues, not by national issues. And the third problem for Democratic congressional candidates is specific to the House of Representatives, and that's the way many districts today are gerrymandered to make it very difficult for the majority party to lose. Can we have a surprise in the House? Certainly. I think actually it's more likely that the Democrats could take back the House, with maybe seventeen seats; in the Senate they would need to pick up six.

Is that because the seats in the Senate that are open—

Tend to favor Republicans very heavily. But if I were forced to bet at this point, Democrats would pick up seats, but they won't take either house, and that will put the administration in a particularly difficult spot in which it will have all the responsibility for getting action completed but not having a very commanding majority on the Hill.

And would then lay itself open in the presidential election for being incompetent?

If the congressional midterm elections prove to be a big victory for the Democrats, whether it gives them control of one or both houses or simply takes them very close to a majority position, it's going to be very difficult for the president, and effectively at that point he very clearly will be a very lame duck.

Well what are the policy options the president has? I mean he could announce some troop movements out of Iraq, but that would seem to be giving up. And he's been pretty strong on staying the course. On Iran, that seems like an issue that's not going to be solved anytime soon. So he's really kind of stuck, isn't he?

Well in foreign policy the president doesn't have a lot of options to improve his public standing, and I would argue more generally the administration's ability to fundamentally change its public approval ratings aren't very good. Recently the administration announced a shakeup of its upper echelon; there was some hope this would turn things around, and it's clear from public opinion data that the public isn't giving them much credit for that. The issue the president has in foreign policy is that many foreign policy issues really don't give you a very large political payoff.

In the case of Iraq, the president can try to repackage the policy, announce some draw downs, but the public seems to have really sort of moved decisively to being unhappy with the Iraq war itself and the occupation. The public also in many ways is prudent; it realizes that you can't have a precipitous withdrawal. And beyond that the president's problem is even if he gets good news coming out of Iraq, his administration's reputation is taking a hit in so many other fronts it's not clear it's going to give him a very large return.

What's hurt Bush the most about Iraq?

Obviously the drum beat of bad news has hurt. But the bigger issue here isn't the question of what the death toll is in Iraq, but rather what people's expectations of the costs of Iraq would be. And what's interesting is that if you go back and look at the public opinion data from before the Iraq war, and you look at a lot of the talk in the newspapers about how the war in Iraq would be fought, many people had expectations that American casualties would exceed 5,000, exceed 10,000, maybe even higher, because of the great fear that Iraq would use weapons of mass destruction, particularly chemical weapons. Then of course what happened was the U.S. military was able to take Baghdad and occupy the country at very, very low loss of American life.

So then the expectation of what was a tolerable casualty rate really changed. That's how you should have to understand the death toll. And the notion was, in some sense, Americans thought this war was over in May of 2003. Remember the president landed on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln to the banner of "mission accomplished" and here we are three plus years later and there's no end in sight. In politics, what matters is people's expectations, and here you have a problem when the expectations shifted from "this could be tough," to "this was a great victory and we succeeded," and now, all of a sudden, it's back to "wow, this is a very difficult slog." Once you start tossing out phrases like "quagmire," "lengthy occupation," "we can't cut and run," people understandably become less positive about the decision to get into the war.

And I guess the expectation also was that the Iraqi people would jump for joy at being liberated.

But to be fair, many Iraqis did, particularly in the Shiite-dominated south. Now the problem is that you have what [former Secretary of State] Colin Powell calls "the Pottery Barn rule," once you break it you own it. And once the United States went into Iraq it became responsible for the welfare of the Iraqis, and the failures of the administration to plan for the occupation, which was always going to be difficult, are well-documented. It's interesting because if you look today in Darfur, where there is a genocide going on, and where there have been some rather tepid efforts by regional organizations, by the United Nations, to try to stop the killing, there's a great deal of enthusiasm among many of the Sudanese who have been oppressed by the janjaweed and the other Sudanese militias for Americans to come in.

I think it's important to understand it's not the case that everyone in the world hates the United States, or that people were ungrateful, but again going back to the case of Iraq, many Iraqis wanted to be liberated, wanted Saddam Hussein to be sent home, were quite happy to have Americans come in. The problem always become once you intervene in these situations you become responsible for making them succeed and the intervention is the easy part; the building the institutions can be very difficult. Again, you could go back and look at the history of the U.S. interventions in the Balkans, where I would argue on balance it was the right thing to do, it saved a lot of lives, probably should have done it earlier, but we shouldn't kid ourselves that these kinds of interventions are short-lived or easy to do.

Does the American public have a sort of one or two year maximum tolerance for these things?

No, the American public quite rightly would like to do good things, but it also doesn't want to get bogged down in places where they begin to worry that we're not helping things get better; that we're part of the problem. Once you intervene you go from being an observer to being a participant. However virtuous your motives for going in, you become seen by all the other players as another player who can help them or who can hurt them, and that's what can make it very, very difficult. And obviously in the case of Iraq you have some basic sectarian differences, and it was a country that for most of its history lived by winner-take-all rules.

If you're trying to create a democracy, or even sort of a benign autocracy, you have to have people understand that sometimes they're going to lose and that will be okay. But if people's historical memory is you lose and you die, it becomes very difficult to compromise. And clearly if you look at Iraq—and this is replicated in lots of other places—the majority of the public would love to just get along and live and proceed their daily lives. But you have small groups of very highly motivated people who make that very difficult. We saw it in the Balkans, we've seen it in other regions of the world, and that's why it becomes so difficult, and for the administration and for the administration's critics, at the end of the day, have to recognize that we have a very large stake in getting Iraq to work reasonably well, because the possibility of Iraq devolving into a full-scale civil war—which is low right now but clearly a possibility—would result in tremendous upheaval in that part of the world, which happens to be the place where we produce the vast bulk of the world's oil, and oil now is at seventy dollars a barrel and it could go far higher.

Do you think the Rumsfeld factor matters much at this point? If Secretary of Defense Donald M. Rumsfeld left next week, would that improve the president's polling one way or the other?

Well, George Bush is unlikely to fire Donald Rumsfeld, but when your poll numbers fall far enough perhaps you'll consider doing things you wouldn't do otherwise. But ultimately a personnel shuffle is not going to help the president, in part because the president's problem has grown from being just an issue of Iraq to encompass a lot of things. And again, if you go over the past year, sort of the litany of setbacks for the administration are Iraq, the disaster on social security privatization, the response to Hurricane Katrina, a growing drumbeat of news about corruption among congressional Republicans leading to indictments, the sort of lingering story about members of the administration outing CIA operatives and being indicted—that's an awful lot of bad news and when all of that sort of bad news comes to you it tends to stick. And you can look at the president's polling numbers and say, "now, there's a reason why they're so low. The president and his administration have earned it."

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