- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 24, 2006

BERLIN.

Many years ago, I worked on a campaign for a politician whose sole tactic was running one nasty TV commercial after another savaging his opponent. When I asked him about this approach, he said, “If I can’t get people to vote for me, maybe I can get them to vote against him.”

In politics, sometimes your best friend is the right enemy. If you want to look handsome, stand next to a rhinoceros.

By that standard, George Bush is enjoying an embarrassment of riches. In the same week, he found himself under attack by both Al Gore and Osama bin Laden. The only thing better would be if Jacques Chirac denounced him for not wearing French perfume.

You might think it would hurt the president for the al Qaeda leader to make a sudden reappearance, chirping away about new attacks on American soil. The latest tape furnishes an annoying reminder that more than four years after the World Trade Center towers fell, the guy who brought them down is still mooning us from his mountain hideout.

That’s humiliating to the greatest military power on Earth. But every tape bin Laden makes reminds Americans how much they loathe him, distracting them from the fact that they’re not all that crazy about Mr. Bush. If the president can’t sell his policies on their merits, he can pitch them as the opposite of what the enemy wants.

By renewing his pledge to slaughter Americans, bin Laden conveniently took the focus off of Iraq, where the president is weak, and put it on terrorism, where he is strong. In the latest polls, only 37 percent of Americans now approve of how Mr. Bush is conducting the war in Iraq. But 53 percent support his handling of the war on al Qaeda.

That explains why the administration doesn’t mind getting beaten up by civil libertarians for its secret domestic spying program. To many voters, the criticism only confirms their belief that Mr. Bush is serious about fighting the terrorists. In Iraq, the administration was accused of doing too little to ensure victory. To be faulted for doing too much is a nice change.

The administration can also hope that by urging a speedy U.S. departure from Iraq, bin Laden will deter Americans from embracing that option. In his latest message, he crowed that “an overwhelming majority of you wants the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.”

But even unwanted validation from al Qaeda isn’t likely to reverse the current of public opinion, which responds to more tangible facts. As Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller notes in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, this war has followed the same simple pattern as the conflicts in Vietnam and Korea: “As casualties mount, support decreases.”

Once people jump off the bandwagon, they rarely climb back on. Good news from Iraq has temporarily boosted support in the past. But it “soon fell back to where it had been before and then continued its generally downward course,” says Mr. Mueller.

If there is anything different this time around, he notes, it’s that opposition grew so fast. In Vietnam, 20,000 American soldiers died before most Americans decided Lyndon Johnson had blundered. In Iraq, it only took 1,500 deaths to convince a majority that we have better things to do.

Maybe that’s because we’ve gotten used to seeing our military prevail quickly and easily, as we did in Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. To be fighting nearly three years after the fall of Saddam Hussein was not in the game plan. Neither was the price tag of up to $2 trillion recently projected by Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz.

Americans are not pathologically allergic to the costs of war. Had we found nuclear weapons in Iraq, no one would be asking today if the sacrifice was worth it.

But in 2003, most people would not have been willing to expend large amounts of money and blood to bring liberty to Iraq, and they still aren’t. If a president wants to fight a war to make the world a better place, it had better be a quick one.

When he decided to invade, Mr. Bush refused to see that he was leading the nation into a prolonged conflict that would soon forfeit public support. So today he finds himself at a pretty pass: telling Americans they are wrong about the war in Iraq, while Osama bin Laden tells them they’re right.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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