Saturday, May 1, 2004

Poor John Kerry. He thought his Vietnam medals would immunize him from the old charge that Democrats are soft on defense. Instead we have pictures heaving his medals — or his ribbons, or somebody else’s medals — over a fence in front of the U.S. Capitol.

But the jury is still very much out on George Bush’s conduct of the Iraq war, too, latest polls indicate. As U.S. forces appeared to hover indecisively outside Fallujah and Najaf, 46 percent of respondents in a New York Times/CBS poll last week said the United States should have stayed out of Iraq, up from 31 percent in December. Does that mean the time has come for Mr. Bush to admit error and pull the troops out of Iraq?

Only history can say for sure, but a good case can also be made it means the time has come for Mr. Bush to move forward decisively. What may be bugging a fair number of Americans is not that the war in Iraq isn’t going as smoothly as the Bush team expected. War rarely does. It’s that for more than a month now Mr. Bush has appeared to be on the brink of repeating his father’s mistake: not finishing the job.

Mr. Bush’s press conference was a clear sign of the debate within the Bush soul on the issue. Sure, many of the questions were dumb, particularly the effort to trap him into confessing he had made mistakes. One waited for the press to ask if he had stopped beating his wife. It’s significant the reporters saw fit not to ask Mr. Bush a single question about the economy, strongly suggesting he now owns that issue.

But to those of us out in the boondocks, Mr. Bush’s inarticulate, bumbling responses to a predictable question seemed to show a president uncharacteristically unsure of himself, even a bit demoralized, and who had yet to take the measure of some tough decisions ahead.

There may have been good reasons to hold back the troops as Ba’athists rebelled in Fallujah and as Shi’ite hotheads tried to turn Najaf into a guerrilla sanctuary for themselves. In Iraq’s three-cornered politics — Kurds, Sunni Muslims and Shi’ites — America’s 130,000 troops hold a precarious balance of power. If administrator Paul Bremer can cut a deal with the Sunni diehards — a deal evident in the announcement that all but top-level Ba’athist remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime are now eligible for re-employment in government and the armed forces — the Shi’ite majority might be likelier to play ball.

And if Shi’ite moderates can be persuaded to cool off the hotheads, the Sunnis have to worry about being left out in the cold in the postwar regime.

But all this political triangulation is below the radar of average American voters, who are left wondering if hesitation to commit troops means the administration is losing its nerve. This would only confirm fears Iraq has been a blunder.

At the time of this writing, the Marines appear to have handed off the job of restoring order in Fallujah to the Iraqi forces they have been training. Let’s hope it works. If the Iraqis fail to pacify Fallujah soon, however, either through diplomatic or military means, the electoral consequences for George W. Bush could be just as serious as George H.W. Bush’s failure to take Baghdad were for his re-election. It could make the job twice as difficult — and bloody — for the Marines. And it could lead dissidents in other parts of the country to turn their cities into coalition-free sanctuaries.

The media begin to smell a losing strategy. One prominent straw in the wind was Ted Koppel’s morbid decision to use his “Nightline” show to picture the dead American soldiers one by one. Sure, it’s a silly stunt — Mr. Koppel’s bid to replace Walter Cronkite as the media Big Foot who declares a U.S. failure.

Would Mr. Koppel have dared do something similar in the ghastly winter of 1942-43? Then American forces were suffering horrible casualties in the North Africa campaign — a campaign heavily criticized on the home front as a diversion from the real war in Europe, a bailout for Britain’s colonial pretensions and a dubious strategy that cost some 70,000 Allied dead, wounded and captured?

But this is unquestionably a time of testing for Mr. Bush. Will he finish the job, or will he back away, as his father did?

Reports from the front strongly suggest Iraqis are unhappy with the American occupation too. But what they seem to be unhappiest about is the failure to establish law and order. They may want America gone. But like Americans, they also want to know Mr. Bush won’t settle for quagmire, much less defeat. Otherwise they may decide to start throwing in their lot with the “winning” side.

Tom Bray is a Detroit News columnist.

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