Iraq war will be Bush's legacy

By the time you read this the 24-hour spin cycle will be over on President Bush’s speech at Fort Bragg. All in all, the president did what he had to do. He got back onto the message that has sustained his presidency over the past four years and through a hard-fought election. The war on terrorism began Sept. 11, 2001, said Bush nearly half a dozen times during the speech.

By the time you read this the 24-hour spin cycle will be over on President Bush’s speech at Fort Bragg. All in all, the president did what he had to do. He got back onto the message that has sustained his presidency over the past four years and through a hard-fought election.

The war on terrorism began Sept. 11, 2001, said Bush nearly half a dozen times during the speech. America is in danger, and we must fight the enemy in Iraq or we’ll be fighting him in Indiana. (As one who came of age politically during the Vietnam War, it is hard to believe this recycled domino theory still has traction, but Bush obviously believes it does.)

The real test of whether Bush’s message has staying power will come over the next 18 months. The president claimed we were winning the war — on the ground in Iraq and throughout the world by sparking popular demand for independent, democratic and free nations throughout the Middle East. He came close to suggesting that Iraq would be the terrorists’ last stand. We’ll learn on the first Tuesday of November 2006 if American voters buy into that.

While it is likely the president will get a short-term bump in his polling numbers, there is no clear evidence the trend will continue. Americans continue to “support the troops” and probably always will. Their support of Bush’s foreign policy, however, has been eroding steadily the past six months, and that is likely also to continue.

Few Americans still believe there was any direct linkage between Saddam Hussein’s government and the attacks of Sept. 11. Those paying attention know that the death of Yasser Arafat is the only reason for elections in Palestine, the assassination of Lebanon’s most visible opposition leader spawned the Cedar Revolution and Libya’s agreement to halt its nuclear-weapons program was a result of negotiations begun before Bush took office.

While the president may claim that his Iraq policy is defeating terrorism and spawning a wave of democratic reform, it will be tough for Republicans seeking reelection to sell that message if confronted with reasonable and well-executed arguments from Democrats. Whether candidates for Congress can do a better job of making their case that Sen. John Kerry did in the presidential election is, of course, another question entirely. But if they do, we are likely to see losses in the Republican dominance in the Congress.

Most Americans now acknowledge we were misled into war in Iraq. Clearly there were no weapons of mass destruction and Saddam was not tied to al Qaeda. Yesterday’s New York Times included a quote from a Navy petty officer that pretty much sums up the attitude of American voters: “What’s done is done. We’re in there, so let’s finish the job.”

The debate is going to be over just how we do that. To use the Vietnam analogy again, this administration has rejected the “we just need one more division” argument that finally turned the country against that misadventure. Bush even suggested that more troops would be counterproductive; “It sends the message that we will stay forever,” he said. But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Democrats like Sen. Joe Biden (Del.) are coming very close to saying Bush is not being completely honest when he says his generals don’t want more boots on the ground. That is the first building block in an argument over how we win this war or at least get out with honor.

We can expect more detailed arguments over strategy and tactics to emerge as the midterm elections heat up. There really is no other place for Democrats to go. Carping about being lied to will fill a lot of opinion columns over the next few years, but it is not likely to win votes. “OK, maybe we are there under false pretenses” is what voters are saying. “Now, give me a plan to get us out.”

Whatever that plan is, it is increasingly likely that Bush will not be the one standing there when the last troops come home. The president finally began to talk in terms of years Tuesday night.

It just may be that the Bush legacy will be a president who started a war with very little reason that another president was left to finish in what will likely be a messy ending. That is not the message Bush wanted history to write, but increasingly it seems likely to be the one future generations will read.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com