Bush's Strategy: Win Now, Pay Later?

The President is getting his way, but his eagerness to paint Democrats as soft on Iraq could cost him dearly if things go wrong

By Howard Gleckman

President George Bush's Iraq strategy seems to be working. He's gathering grudging international support for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. By mid-October, he'll win an overwhelming congressional vote in favor of military action against Saddam. And, following the road map drawn by political adviser Karl Rove, Bush seems to be successfully making Iraq, rather than the economy, the key national issue in the upcoming congressional elections. He has, as they say, changed the subject.

Bush -- and the nation -- may well pay a big price down the road for the President's decision to use Iraq as a bash-Democrats applause line at partisan political fund-raisers. Today, Democrats have little choice but to back the President in his effort to destroy Saddam. But because Bush has been so partisan, support for the war appears to be quite shallow.

Should the attack on Saddam flounder, or -- more likely -- should the U.S. get bogged down in a nasty postwar Iraqi quagmire, backing for Bush and U.S. engagement will dry up like a creek in a Texas summer.


  Democrats, seething that Bush and the GOP have tried to paint them as anti-American for questioning a unilateral invasion, will give the President very little rope should matters get dicey. So will a public that's already deeply uncertain about the operation. About two-thirds of those polled say they back a war. But when asked what they think about a war if it meant heavy U.S. casualties, or their view if the nation acted without the support of its allies, support for the war dips below 50%.

That number will rise smartly when an operation begins. It always does. But if matters sour, Bush will be under tremendous pressure to cut and run, leaving a world-class mess in the wake of Saddam's overthrow.

And, by the way, can everyone agree to drop the White House's euphemistic call for "regime change" in Iraq and acknowledge that Bush wants to get rid of Saddam now and forever?


  Bush could have handled this differently. As he did after September 11, he could have asked congressional Democrats to join him in a bipartisan effort to develop an anti-Iraq strategy. Indeed, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) were well on their way to backing Bush when GOP Democrat-bashing made their position untenable in their own party. With the briefest of bipartisan embraces by Bush, the Democrats' antiwar wing would have been left in the cold, looking in at a broad political consensus around war.

Instead, Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, and some Hill Republicans declared open season on Democrats. His congressional opposition closed ranks, and at the moment, instead of getting 90-95 Senate votes for a resolution backing the war, Bush will be lucky to get 75.

As Rove figured, focusing on the war at this point in the campaign season makes perfect sense for the GOP. Even more than many midterm elections, this one looks like it will be a low-turnout affair. And that means the key to victory is turning out your base. Bush's red-meat Iraq rhetoric is energizing core GOP voters, while the Democrats' war confusion, and the party's inability to get any traction on economic issues, is doing little to enthuse its partisans.


  The election is not until early November, about five weeks from now, and domestic politics could shift if the economic and stock market news continue to worsen. But, for now, Bush has succeeded in bogging the Democrats in a no-win squabble over Iraq.

The tactic could well win the GOP the election. Bush better hope so. Because if the Democrats continue to control at least one house of Congress a year from now, the President could be paying a fearsome price for turning his back on a bipartisan foreign policy.

Gleckman is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Tuesday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Beth Belton

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