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White House Wages Latest Iraq Battle on Home Front

New tactics to increase public support before the 2004 election include a 'PR offensive' and shifting power from the Pentagon to the NSC.

October 12, 2003|Doyle McManus | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration launched its fall offensive on Iraq last week -- but the main battlegrounds were in Illinois, New Hampshire and the corridors of the White House, and the initial outcome was pretty much a draw.

For months, officials say, President Bush and his advisors have worried that progress in Iraq wasn't coming fast enough. They faced not only a determined guerrilla resistance in Baghdad, but sluggish bureaucracies in Washington. And as U.S. casualties mounted, public confidence in Bush's management of the issue began to sag, raising a potential danger to his campaign for reelection next year.

"We needed to accelerate the effort in Iraq," a White House official explained. The "acceleration" included Bush's request to Congress for $87 billion for efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, a stepped-up effort to wheedle help from other countries, and what one aide bluntly called "the PR offensive," which kicked off last week with stay-the-course speeches by the president and other top officials.

It also included a reorganization of the way the administration is running Iraq policy that appeared to shift power from the Pentagon to the White House's National Security Council -- and that touched off a small but very public explosion from Donald H. Rumsfeld, the prickly secretary of Defense.

"I don't remember it being discussed," Rumsfeld told reporters. He added, half-joking, that he considered "the Chicago Cubs being in the playoffs and what's going on in California" more important.

White House officials insisted that Rumsfeld had known about the reorganization in advance. The Defense secretary's real complaint, they believed, was that the change would be trumpeted by rivals as a sign that his office had failed to manage Iraq policy effectively.

The episode left some White House aides unhappy with both the State Department and the Pentagon -- with the State Department for purportedly telling reporters that Rumsfeld was losing ground in the power struggle, and with the Pentagon's Rumsfeld for rising to the bait.

As a result, instead of bolstering public confidence that Bush has Iraq under firm control, the first week of the fall offensive sent an unintended message of an administration in disarray -- a painful experience for a president who prizes discretion as a major virtue.

"The public largely agrees with the president's argument that we have to stay in Iraq, but they blanch at the costs and they think he's not managing it very well," said pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center. "The appearance of a divided administration doesn't help."

The message the administration intended to deliver was quite different: that Iraq is enjoying more progress than news reports suggest, but that a long and difficult struggle remains ahead. That message, a combination of long-term optimism and short-term caution, was considerably more sober than the bravado of three months ago, when Bush responded to a question about Iraqi insurgents with a cocksure "Bring 'em on."

"Life is getting better [in Iraq]; it's a lot better than you probably think," Bush told National Guard personnel in New Hampshire, the first primary election state, on Thursday. "Just ask people who have been there.... The stories they tell are much different from the perceptions that you're being told life is like."

"Our work in Iraq has been long. It's hard. And it's not finished," he said. "We will stay the course. We will complete our job."

National security advisor Condoleezza Rice delivered a similar message in a speech in Chicago. In Washington, Vice President Dick Cheney weighed in with a toughly worded speech that accused the administration's critics and the United Nations of "a policy of doing exactly nothing." Even First Lady Laura Bush joined the effort, telling an audience of female judges (who had expected a speech on health issues) that her husband's policies had benefited "women all over the world -- women especially in Afghanistan and Iraq."

Administration officials believe that media coverage of Iraq has focused too much on attacks by anti-American militants, and too little on less-dramatic progress in other areas, such as increased electricity output and reopening schools.

At the same time, they acknowledge more candidly than before that the Pentagon underestimated the difficulty of rebuilding Iraq, that the insurgents are likely to continue their attacks for months to come, and that a large U.S. force will remain in the country for at least two years.

The political dilemma for Bush is not immediate; as Kohut noted, most Americans tell pollsters they still support keeping U.S. troops in Iraq until their mission is complete.

The problem, instead, lies six months ahead, when the Army is scheduled to rotate new troops into the country and may consider extending reservists' tours. That's about the same time that a Democratic presidential nominee will emerge from the primaries and many voters will begin deciding whom to vote for.

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