Bitterness in the congressional debate over U.S. policies in Iraq has become a danger to this country and to its position of world leadership. The nation’s credibility is at stake as is the credibility of the president.
Vicious Democratic attacks on the president hit a new low with the claim George W. Bush deliberately misinterpreted intelligence reports to provide an excuse to get the nation into war with Iraq. If that were so, most of the Senate and the leaders of several other powerful nations are guilty because they saw the same intelligence reports and supported the war.
The disgraceful similar precedent for such an attack goes back to early in World War II when Republicans circulated rumors that Franklin Roosevelt knew the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor but failed to notify the armed forces because he wanted to get the nation into war. No evidence ever showed that to be true in the slightest.
Clearly, the objective of the current attacks is to undermine the president’s credibility, particularly with election year 2006 on the horizon. As the nation saw in the cases of Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, a president with low credibility is unable to govern fully.
The attack could not have come at a worse time. The president was on foreign soil in difficult discussions, first in Latin America and then in Asia. More critically, the attacks came shortly before Dec. 15’s all-important democratic elections in Iraq.
Our hope for timely formation of a democratic government in Iraq depends on the December elections. In their attacks, Sen. John Kerry and others undercut our support for these elections. This undermining of the president also comes while we seem to be making progress for peace and some form of democracy in other Middle East countries.
Before the war in Iraq, Saddam Hussein ordered his television stations to replay often scenes of the last American days in Saigon in 1975, one of our darker days. Saddam’s point was, “Don’t rely on the United States when the going gets tough.”
One wonders if Rep. John Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, thought about that in making his dramatic call for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Many forget Congress opened the foreign debacle door by cutting off financial support for South Vietnam after a much-hailed cease-fire had been negotiated in 1973. The North Vietnamese knew congressional action also undercut the president’s power and soon marched south.
In a telephone interview, Sen. John Warner, Virginia Republican, said he believes the Senate took the right step with an amendment to the defense appropriations bill, which he says tells the Iraqis to move forward with their new government and take more responsibility quickly. He is proud that the Senate passed the defense appropriations bill 98-0, a rare show of bipartisanship. The opposite view comes from Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who said the vote on the Warner amendment was a “vote of no confidence on the Bush administration’s policy on Iraq.”
Congressional Republicans decided to take a proactive stand on Iraq. Thus Mr. Warner helped defeat a more antiwar amendment and turned up with a similar but more moderate bill in the Senate, as part of an effort to bring the debate to a more rational level. Mr. Reid’s comment illustrates the difficulty.
House Republicans immediately called for a vote on a generalized version of Mr. Murtha’s withdrawal proposal, knowing their opponents wanted to exploit the Murtha idea but that they could not afford to vote for it. Only three voted to halt the war immediately.
Even while in Mongolia, President Bush took note of the growing bitterness, and he called Mr. Murtha a patriot who had the right to disagree with him. The president obviously is seeking a more factual and less personal basis for the inevitable Iraq debate.
Stephen Hess, veteran Washington observer of the Brookings Institute, says he believes 90 percent of the president’s slip in the polls to below 40 percent was due primarily to public dissatisfaction with the conduct and length of the war in Iraq.
“People were a little unhappy about how the situation was handled in New Orleans and with the Supreme Court, but basically the economy is good and Bush deserves credit. All of that is often overlooked because of Iraq,” he says.
Mr. Hess believes Mr. Bush has 90 to 180 days to regain public credibility. “I believe it can be done,” he says, “but he will have to open up more and make no mistakes.”
Tom Johnson, former president of CNN and press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson, had the tough job of trying to rebuild his president’s credibility at the peak of the Vietnam War. “After the Tonkin Bay incident when President Johnson was accused of fabricating a second day attack on U.S. ships, that became almost impossible,” he says.
The Washington media again has “smelled blood” and a feeding frenzy is on. Tom Johnson became president of CNN at about the time of the Gulf war, and the cable company immediately won plaudits for its fair coverage, even from Baghdad. Since his departure, CNN has lost rating points and is accused of anti-Iraq war bias. It is part of the feeding frenzy.
In a thoughtful article in the current Foreign Affairs magazine, former Nixon Defense Secretary Melvin Laird notes the goals and circumstances of the Iraq War differ greatly from Vietnam.
Mr. Laird believes, as Iraqis begin governing themselves and larger numbers of their security forces are trained, the president should periodically announce withdrawal of some units of American troops. That was called Vietnamization in 1970, and it probably is the method the president will follow.
It is more difficult to get prime television time now than 30 years ago, but the president must rebuild his relationship with the American people — with more direct communication.
The president also needs more support from his own party, where too many congressmen are hedging. This is no time for self indulgence.
There is no substitute for credibility. A president must have credibility if he is to guide the country at home and abroad.
Herbert G. Klein is a national fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, retired editor in chief of Copley Newspapers and former Nixon White House director of communications.