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The Clouds May Be Clearing for Bush and GOP

Progress in Iraq and the U.S. economy could leave the president sitting pretty for 2004.

October 19, 2003|Walter Russell Mead | Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of "Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World."

NEW YORK — Since May 1, when President Bush touched down on the deck of the U.S. aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in a flight suit, it was a downhill slide for the Bush administration. Iraq increasingly looked like a quagmire, no weapons of mass destruction turned up, and the economy didn't produce jobs. The administration's poll numbers accordingly sank, and the president's political clout weakened. As American soldiers continued to be killed in Iraq, TV announcers somberly remarked after each death: "That makes (fill in the blank) American combat deaths since the president declared an end to major hostilities."

It was springtime for Democrats. Bush-bashing became their favorite sport. The administration's $87-billion request to pay for Iraq's and Afghanistan's reconstruction and the U.S. military presence there was God's gift to Democrats. Last week, the House and Senate approved versions of the bill, but the request had offered many opportunities for Democrats to torture the administration, ask it embarrassing questions and force Bush to spend more and more political capital on the profoundly unpopular legislation. For the first time since Sept. 11, 2001, the Democrats had seemed to have recovered their balance and learned to function well as an opposition party.

Like the Chicago Cubs, though, the Democrats may have peaked too soon. Bush's poll numbers have stabilized. Arnold Schwarzenegger's victory in the California gubernatorial recall election has sent a thrill through the Republican Party. In Iraq, the violence continues, but the lights are now on, kids are returning to school, Turkey has agreed to send troops to the most dangerous part of the country (Sunni Iraq) -- and the Bush administration won unanimous support from the U.N. Security Council for its plan for Iraq.

This doesn't mean Bush's problems in Iraq are over. The drumbeat of death will go on for some time. Discontent in the ranks and among reservists (and their families) will continue to rise. Questions about weapons of mass destruction will not go away -- and, especially if Saddam Hussein is not captured or killed, the politics of Iraq will remain uncertain and potentially full of nasty surprises.

The new harmony at the U.N. Security Council is only skin-deep. Allied money and troops aren't flowing into Iraq yet -- and may never. Old Europe and its friends aren't ready to kiss and make up with the Bush administration. The French, Germans and Russians still steam over the U.S.-led invasion. They remain worried that a new Iraqi government, with U.S. backing, may try to repudiate some of the debt Hussein contracted in cozy deals made with French, Russian and German companies. They want the U.S. to pay the highest possible price -- in money and even in blood -- for the invasion to lessen the chance that the Bush administration or its successors will ever act without their approval. "You broke it; you fix it," is Old Europe's basic attitude on Iraq -- and it will never willingly do any favors for an administration it fears and despises.

Even so, time is on Bush's side. The distance between the U.S. and the rest of the world over Iraq will narrow. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Old Europe want Washington to draw up timetables and set dates for elections and a handover of power to a new Iraqi government. Although the U.S. believes that schedules are unhelpful, as time passes, the tasks will get easier. The reality is, the United States wants to do exactly what the rest of the world would like it to do in Iraq -- hand control back to a freely elected, stable Iraqi government at the earliest possible moment.

Iraq is making progress toward forming a new government, and that government will be able to assume more and more security responsibilities. By next spring, the new Iraqi police and army will be deploying, enabling the administration to start pulling out U.S. troops well before the November elections.

That will be the best possible news for the Bush administration. With troops coming home, most voters will move on to other issues. Once convinced that the U.S. doesn't face a Vietnam-like quagmire in Iraq, public opinion will probably accept the administration's case for the war without too much complaint. Die-hard peace activists and the hard-core Bush haters will continue to loathe the president, but they will be a minority, and flogging dead horses is never the way to win elections in the U.S.

The administration's other big problem, the economy, also appears to be turning around. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is up 32% from its 2003 low, while the Nasdaq is up 53%. Although Germany and France are scaling back their growth projections, the U.S. looks set to return to 4% annual growth next year. Recent falls in the dollar should both reduce the trade deficit and stimulate job growth.

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