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Hand-Over Is Political Gamble for Bush

June 28, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The hand-over of authority to an interim Iraqi government may offer President Bush his best opportunity before November to rebuild public confidence in his strategy for Iraq, but it also risks accelerating U.S. disillusionment with the mission there.

With a flurry of recent polls showing most Americans uneasy with events in Iraq, analysts across the political spectrum agree that the changeover could represent a pivotal moment in U.S. attitudes about the war.

Progress in establishing an Iraqi government capable of bearing more of the military burden could help Bush reverse the growing doubts about his management of the conflict -- and fears that it has reduced rather than enhanced U.S. security.

Conversely, if the new government cannot establish legitimacy and order, pessimism about the mission's prospects -- and disillusionment over Bush's initial decision to invade Iraq -- is likely to solidify and even spread, experts say.

"There is risk and there is opportunity for Bush in the hand-over, and it is one of the most important events in an event-driven election," said Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

One key question is how Americans measure success in the weeks ahead. With U.S. officials indicating that they expect American forces to cede more security responsibilities to Iraqis, the number of U.S. casualties could decline. But as the terrorist attacks across Iraq last week show, a reduced U.S. role could mean more violence and Iraqi casualties.

"The administration is gambling on the notion that Americans will be thankful that there are fewer American casualties, even if the place is blowing up," said Ivo Daalder, a former national security aide to President Clinton and coauthor of a recent book on Bush's foreign policy.

For now, the hand-over does not appear to be significantly affecting Sen. John F. Kerry's strategy in the debate over Iraq. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has insisted since last fall that a key to success in Iraq is delegating more authority to the international community in return for more financial and military aid.

But the emergence of the transitional government could complicate Kerry's arguments by reducing the visible role of American officials and encouraging other nations to become more involved in Iraq.

"It makes it trickier for him," said Thomas Donnelly, a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

The transition, though, holds greater risks for Bush, most agree.

The changeover comes as polls show widespread concern over Bush's direction in Iraq. Although a mid-June Pew survey showed an increase in the percentage of Americans who thought events were going well in Iraq, most recent polls have portrayed public gloom over the struggle to stabilize the country.

In three national polls released last week and a Times survey concluded earlier this month, most Americans said they disapproved of the way Bush was handling the situation in Iraq; no more than 45% approved of his performance in any of the surveys.

In all of those polls, most Americans also said they did not think the decision to invade Iraq was worth the cost. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released Thursday, 54% of those polled said it had been a mistake to send troops to Iraq, while 44% said it was not.

That was the first time since the invasion that a majority had branded the decision a mistake in Gallup surveys.

Experts agree the hand-over this week offers Bush a chance to quell such doubts. Bush supporters say over time it may encourage more Americans to conclude that, even with inevitable reversals, events in Iraq are moving in the right direction again.

White House strategists and independent analysts think the emergence of the interim Iraqi government can help Bush in several distinct ways.

After so many American expectations in Iraq have been disappointed, many agree Bush will benefit simply because the hand-over he has talked about for so long apparently will occur, on schedule.

"That's a potential good news story, where they haven't had many, and a chance to favorably surprise the American public, where they haven't had many of those," said Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who writes extensively on public opinion about national security.

The hand-over will also somewhat change the face of the war for audiences in Iraq and the U.S. Rather than American officials and generals responding to each attack, increasingly it will be Iraqis in the spotlight, led by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Those pictures could subtly reinforce Bush's claim that Iraq is progressing toward his vision of democratic self-governance.

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