How long will the United States maintain a large deployment of troops in Iraq? That is now the central question of George W. Bush’s second term. Until recently, the Bush administration answered with an evasive cliché: “as long as it takes and not one day longer.” But not anymore.
The ice began to crack on November 17, when Representative John Murtha, a hawkish Democratic congressman and marine veteran, suggested pulling troops out of Iraq in six months. Soon after, the Republican-controlled Senate voted for “a significant transition to full Iraq sovereignty in 2006.” After initial resistance, Bush began to change his rhetoric by suggesting that a troop drawdown would occur sooner than previously expected.
The erosion in public support for Bush’s Iraq policy is stark. Fifty-four percent of Americans now say that the US erred in sending troops, up from 24% at the start of the war in March 2003. In part, this reflects the rising casualty rate, with more than 2,100 American soldiers killed thus far.
But it also reflects a growing belief that the war is failing. As Duke University’s Peter Feaver, an expert on public opinion who is now serving as a White House advisor, recently pointed out, Americans will tolerate casualties when they believe that a war is just and has a reasonable prospect of success. But citizens now doubt both these points. The administration is paying the price for overselling the reasons for the war and bungling the post-invasion occupation. Not surprisingly, Bush’s new rhetoric stresses that he has a “strategy for victory.”