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August 19, 2005



PAUL GIGOT: Welcome to THE JOURNAL EDITORIAL REPORT. The apparently relentless violence in Iraq, and the absence of obvious signs of progress, are taking a toll on support for President Bush, and members of his own party are openly concerned about the prospect of Republican losses in the midterm congressional elections next year.

All of the most recent major polls generally agree, whether it is the escalating death toll of U.S. servicemen, the failure of the Iraqis to agree on their own form of democracy, or the perceived lack of an exit strategy. The polls are trending against the president and the war.

In some cases the poll numbers are similar to the trend experienced during the Vietnam War by President Johnson. His popularity plunged as the anti-war movement was first making itself heard. And this week, as President Bush's ratings continued to drop, organized protests against the war in Iraq were seen across America. At the center with Cindy Sheehan, whose son died in Iraq:

CINDY SHEEHAN: I'll never get to see him again. I'll never get to hear his voice again.

PAUL GIGOT: Sheehan camped outside President Bush's Texas ranch for two weeks, demanding to meet with the president.

CINDY SHEEHAN: We're sick and tired of what's going on, and we want our kids to come home. What can we do?

PAUL GIGOT: She drew massive media exposure, from the hoards of reporters and camera crews staked out in Crawford, waiting for any photo opportunity with the vacationing president. She has been a magnet for anti-war bloggers and Internet groups who used the Web to mobilize support around her, sparking this weeks protests and raising comparisons to what began as the tiny protest of seven Vietnam veterans in 1967, which eventually became the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Joining me to discuss all this are: Dan Henninger, columnist and deputy editor of the WALL STREET JOURNAL editorial pages; Bret Stephens, a member of the editorial board; and Jason Riley, a senior writer for the editorial page.

Dan, Cindy Sheehan aside, there's no question the president's poll ratings are falling in support for the war. And this is only a few months after the historic Iraqi election, which was a success, everyone agrees, and then an election in this country where the president won fighting with his opponent over Iraq policy. What accounts for the decline in support now?

DAN HENNINGER: Well, you know, we said in the introduction that the same thing happened to President Johnson in Vietnam. And Vietnam was rightly described as the first television war. And the television effect now I think is exponentially greater than it was back then, and the news, the images, the stories out of Iraq recently have been pretty bad. Al Zarqawi understands that if he blew up 25 to 50 people every couple of days, the impact in the United States would be terrible.

Now, there is a case to be made for what is going on in Iraq, for the democratization process and Islamic fundamentalism and the threat from terror. But instead of making that case, it seems to me that the Bush administration has been willing to take this public relations disaster in the neck, and that they have to get out there and do something to counter it because otherwise they default to letting television images drive down public support for the war.

PAUL GIGOT: Jason, this is a guerilla war, and as Dan says Zarqawi and the terrorists can create headlines with these daily attacks. But the signposts of victory aren't so clear. What are the signposts of success? Training Iraqi soldiers to take over from us, the progress on the political front, schools and other signs of economic progress in some of the provinces where there isn't a lot of violence. What about this, this tension between the daily violence and the quieter signs of progress such as there is?

JASON RILEY: Well, I'd agree with Dan. I think it does boil down to something of PR problem for the Administration. As you mentioned in the introduction, the president ran for re-election based mostly on his war record. He won. And I don't think the American people are so fickle that less than a year later they're ready to abandon him on that. But the Administration has to get out there and make the case. And you can fault them for not doing a very good job of that.

And what that's done is left an opening for the press to come in -- a largely anti-war, anti-Bush press, by the way -- to come in and paint the worst possible light on what's going on over there. And it shows up in what you were just saying. The insurgency that we're facing is very difficult to describe progress going on, and very easy to show pictures of the body bags and Cindy Sheehan on television.

BRET STEPHENS: Well, there's another thing I would say that's going on, which is that we've been climbing a mountain with a series of essentially false summits. You go up the mountain and you think, oh, that's the top. And we thought initially in March of 2003, the top is going to be when we take Baghdad. We took Baghdad that April. Then the insurgency began. We thought, okay, the next summit, we've got to capture Saddam Hussein. We captured Saddam Hussein in December 2003. Things still didn't seem to improve. The next summit: elections in January, 2005. Those we felt would be the crucial test, the turning point. Those happened. They were successes, but the insurgency still didn't decline. Now we're talking about the constitution.

And so that isn't to say we aren't making progress, because we are making progress. But it gives you a sort of psychological sense of the exhaustion that you feel when you keep thinking that that point is the pinnacle, and it turns out that it isn't. And I think that explains a sense of exhaustion with the American public. Why aren't we reaching the final top?

PAUL GIGOT: Dan, our former colleague and boss, Bob Bartley, used to say that one of the lessons of Vietnam, maybe the lesson of Vietnam, was, you don't fight wars you don't intend to win. And that the American people may be seeing that -- or wondering, do we have a strategy to win. Because you're seeing some cracks even on the president's right flank who originally supported the war. Is there any reason for thinking that that's going to break on his right? You know, that old line that we've got to fight harder, we've got to go on the offense?

DAN HENNINGER: I doubt it. I think this is one president who really does intend to win. It's the one element here that no one should doubt, and that's George Bush's fortitude. I think he fully intends to see this through, and I think they do have a strategy. I mean, these are not fools running this war. They won't share any of that with the American people. And in the absence of that, the disintegration of support that's beginning to show up on the right by people who really have no access to any positive information, or any access to what we're going to do to combat things like these incursions from Syria -- that's an obvious example. Something has to be done about the incursions from Syria, and even Iran. And I think people are beginning to wonder whether we're willing, the government is willing to push to that point of expanding the war beyond fighting the insurgency inside Iraq.

PAUL GIGOT: If we need to do that in order to prevail. Bret, there's no question there's some fissures opening up on the right, though. I mean, you see, at least within the Republican party, Walter Jones, the congressman from North Carolina who originally supported the war and was the guy who talked about freedom fries instead of French fries, now says he's against it. And Chuck Hegel, the senator from Nebraska, says we're losing in Iraq. How serious are the fissures?

BRET STEPHENS: I don't think they're very serious right now. I think every party is a big party, and you're bound to see some wavering by a few members. I don't think we see any serious wavering now. But that could begin to change in the face of, especially as we approach the 2006 midterms. A lot of Republicans might start saying if things don't change, this is really hurting us, this is sad news for us.

PAUL GIGOT: Take that on the Democrats, Jason. Russ Feingold this week came out and said for the first time for a leading Democrat saying we should pull out all of our troops by 2006, and he chided his colleagues for being too timid in not calling for that kind of a pull-out. Are we going to have a big debate among Democrats about the war?

JASON RILEY: I think we will. I think Dean has done this by making outrageous comments. Howard Dean, the head of the DNC, the Democratic National Committee, has done this by making some outrageous comments. You hear that wing of the party following up Russ Feingold. But the moderates in the Democrats are the ones who want to be president and therefore are saying moderate things, might take issue with that. It doesn't seem to be a winning strategy politically. Again, Bush won running on his war record. Why would Republicans want to try and pull out Democratic positions on the war when they just won an election going the other way?

DAN HENNINGER: One quick point. The Cindy Sheehan phenomenon I think makes it clear that there are elements in the Democratic party that would like to resurrect the anti-Vietnam movement. And I think it would be tempting to the Democrats to use that running up to 2006, but if we resurrect something like we went through in Vietnam I think it will be a disaster for the country.

BRET STEPHENS: Yeah, and I would add, I think that at the end of the day the Cindy Sheehan protest is probably going to help the president more than it hurts him, because if she becomes the emblem of what the anti-war movement is about and people start looking at the things she actually believes, that we went to war on behalf of oil interests and Israel, that we should never have gone into Afghanistan in the first place, she's going to paint the anti-war movement as essentially a crackpot movement, and that's not a movement Americans are going to support.

PAUL GIGOT: I have to tell you, though, I have more respect for somebody like Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House who was against the war from the beginning and is still against the war, than I do for some of these Republicans who voted for the war when it was the politically easy thing to do, and now are turning on it because the going gets tough and saying, oh no, they're doing everything wrong. I have more respect for Nancy Pelosi on that score.

Just to finish up, do you agree with what Dan said earlier, Bret, that the president is the kind of person who is going to stick this out and stay, keep American troops in Iraq as long as he needs to stand up a stable government and military there, no matter what the polls are?

BRET STEPHENS: I do. This is the president who isn't looking at the next election. He's a lame duck. He's looking at his legacy. And he understands that his central legacy is whether we come out of Iraq with a Democratic government there with a hopeful future for the Middle East, with a sense that we've turned a corner in the war on terror. He understands very well that if we pull out now, we will have created a disaster, we will have invited Armageddon on ourselves. And the one thing George Bush will never do is pull out of this war.

PAUL GIGOT: All right, Bret, you get the last word. Next subject.