Bush at Risk?

James Zogby’s Column

There is a growing debate in the United States over George W. Bush’s State of the Union speech claim that “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Serious questions have been raised about the validity of the intelligence used to make that claim and whether or not the President was aware of CIA concerns with the intelligence before he made the speech. 

This controversy coupled with the continuing lethal attacks against U.S. military personnel in Iraq and questions about the adequacy of the Administration’s post-war planning have produced a changing political climate in the United States.

Despite White House efforts to disarm or silence their critics, both the press and political opposition have continued their challenge.  During the President’s Africa trip, for example, the press corps traveling with Bush hammered him with question’s about Iraq.  The din they created was so great, at times, it all but drowned out the Administration’s efforts to use the trip to focus on new U.S. initiatives toward African nations.

At the end of a week of relentless criticism and allegations that the Administration may have “manipulated” intelligence to make their case for war, both Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice appeared on the Sunday morning news programs in an effort to snuff out the story.  Rumsfield rebutted the charges of manipulation and then brusquely announced “end of story”.  Rice dismissed the charges as “ludicrous”, while Republican spokespersons chimed in accusing their Democratic critics of “playing politics with the war”.

But the story was not to be over.  Despite the Administration’s best efforts, the story grew.  In fact, each answer provided only new questions about the veracity of the Administration’s claims.  Even when CIA Director George Tenet stepped forward to accept responsibility for the appearance of the unsubstantiated claim in the President’s speech, his claim was not universally accepted.  One Senator noted, “This was not about Tenet’s responsibility.  It’s about the President’s responsibility.”  And a major U.S. newspaper editorialized that the problem is not the “16 words” in the speech, but, what they called “a pattern of deceit that has characterized the Administration’s entire case for the war.”

Now, for those unfamiliar with this type of situation that occurs rather frequently in U.S. politics, its’ called a “feeding frenzy”.  The metaphor describes the mélée created when hungry sharks smell blood in the water and furiously attack their prey.  In this instance the press having taken a rather uncritical approach to Bush during the lead up to the war and during the war itself, now senses that they may have been misled and that the President is vulnerable and so they are attacking.

An additional metaphor useful to describing their behavior was given by former Senator Eugene McCarthy who equated journalists to crows.  “Like crows on an electrical wire” he observed, “when one lands they all land and when one takes off, they all take off.”   

This appears to be what is happening now to the President.  While it has not been fatal, the “frenzy” has taken a toll.  Democrats have become emboldened and their criticisms are harsh.

Senator Ted Kennedy, for example, charged, “it’s a disgrace that the case for war seems to have been based on shoddy intelligence, hyped intelligence and even false intelligence.”  Senator Bob Graham, a member of the Intelligence Committee and a candidate for the presidency termed the President’s behavior “impeachable” and said it was more serious than anything done by Bill Clinton.  Other Senators questioned the Administration’s “truthfulness”.  Even two prominent Republican Senators, Hagel and McCain, expressed dissatisfaction with the Administration’s case and called for an investigation.

The nine candidates competing for the presidential nomination have, for the first time, found common ground in their charges against President Bush.  While the nine were at one point divided between those who were for or against the war, now they all appeared to have questions about the President’s claims and especially about the Administration’s post-war propaganda.

The President has his ardent defenders in the media and within his own party, but they have been put on the defensive-for the first time in a year, and do not appear to be handling their defense all too well.

Of course what is making the entire situation more problematic are the daily press accounts of U.S. casualties in Iraq, and indications that the rosy pre-war scenario painted by pro-war advocates are just not panning out.  Questions that should have been answered before hostilities began are only being answered now.  For example, before the war, in addition to making their claim of “solid intelligence” on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program, the Administration dodged questions on the cost and the terms of commitment of U.S. forces in a post-war Iraq.  Only now has the Pentagon put a near $4 billion per month price tag on the U.S. troop presence and made it clear that forces will remain for the foreseeable future.

The Administration’s latest efforts to deflect the concerns about intelligence, cost and causalities by stating that the real reason for the war was the “liberation of Iraq” is also not working to silence critics who appear to be in no mood for a “subject change” at this point. 

In a word, for the first time in a year (since the Enron and Halliburton scandals were sidetracked by the build up to the war), President Bush is appearing to be vulnerable and polls are showing a significant drop in support putting Bush’s ratings at pre-September 11, 2001 levels.

For example, the recent Newsweek poll shows Bush’s favorability rating at 55%, down from 71% a few months ago.  The same poll shows that only 53% of the public approves of the President’s handling of the Iraq war-also down from 74%.  And 45% now believe that the President “misinterpreted intelligence” in making his case for the war.

More indicative of Bush’s problems can be seen in the findings of a recent Zogby poll stating that for the first time since the 2000 election only 46% of likely voters would vote for Bush as opposed to 47% who indicate that “it is time for someone new to be elected President.”

What this past two weeks of criticism has shown is that Bush is vulnerable not only to press and political attacks, but to his public standing as well.  He remains a popular President, but even in this area he has declined.

Bush may ride out this crisis or the unexpected may help him breathe new life into his presidency.  Saddam could be found.  Stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction may be found or the situation on the ground may dramatically improve and allow for a real declaration of victory.  Should none of this come to pass, however, questions will remain and an emboldened press and opposition will continue to mount a challenge, at least for the foreseeable future.  

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC and a regular contributor to Media Monitors Network (MMN).