President Bush once said he was determined to stick with the Iraq war even if his wife and his dog were the only ones left at his side.
It’s moving in that direction.
People in the United States already were angry about the war before Bush said he would try to bring unrelentingly violent Iraq back from the brink by adding 21,500 more U.S. troops to the 132,000 there now.
Polls show the U.S. public overwhelmingly does not like the idea. Democrats always in opposition were joined very publicly by some Republicans in dissent. Even Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had to be persuaded to go along with a larger U.S. presence in Baghdad.
“He is as isolated as a president can be,” said Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Boston University.
Lawmakers did authorize the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Today, however, the Democratic-controlled Congress is poised to produce votes against a policy that, although nonbinding, will reverberate into the 2008 elections.
And Bush’s problem with Washington’s politicians is not only the product of the new partisan divide.
Moderate Democrats who had the president’s back on the war are jumping ship. The din of disapproval is heard even among some conservative Republicans. The time when only a few GOP lawmakers gingerly would criticize the president’s leadership on the war has given way to the kind of no-holds-barred rhetoric heard the day after Bush’s Wednesday night speech.
“The most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a presidential aspirant and persistent war critic. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., until now a war supporter, said, “I have not been told the truth.”
GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona, one of the holdouts on Bush’s side who wants more troops, acknowledged it was anyone’s guess whether most Republicans will back the president when the votes are called. “I hope the overwhelming majority of my Republican colleagues will come on board, but I can’t predict that,” he said.
Bush treated Republican leaders from the House and Senate to an overnight at Camp David to work on strategy on keeping party members in line after a week of defections that ranged well beyond Iraq.
The politicians are following the public. Seventy percent of those questioned oppose sending more troops to Iraq and doubt that doing so will help, according to AP-Ipsos polling in January. Approval of the president’s handling of the war stands at 29 percent.
Bush’s aides took pains to portray the war plan as in line with the thinking of both his generals and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.
But the president ignored that group’s central recommendations: pulling U.S. troops back by next year, changing their mission right away and recruiting help from Iran and Syria.
The group publicly thanked Bush for paying attention to some of their ideas ? such as embedding more U.S. trainers with Iraqi security forces and setting benchmarks ? but made clear they noticed all the ways the president had spurned them.
War commanders feared a troop increase would strain the armed forces while reducing incentives for Iraqis to take over for themselves. So they had to be brought around.
They received assurances Bush would couple the buildup with significant economic aid and demands that the Iraqis make difficult political and tactical changes. But the president attached no consequences if al-Maliki fails ? as he has in the past ? to deliver.
Even al-Maliki, on whom nearly all the plan’s success hinges, is at best a reluctant partner.
The White House repeatedly said the plan to send thousands more American troops into Baghdad originated with the Iraqi leader. But what al-Maliki proposed was an Iraqi drive to calm the capital with American soldiers pulled back to the outskirts of Baghdad. The U.S. rejected this idea for fear it would lead to unequal treatment of Shiites and Sunnis.
Bush’s isolation recalls Lyndon Johnson predicament when opposition to the Vietnam War convinced him that he should not run for re-election.
Likewise, Zelizer said the now-open revolt of increasing numbers in Bush’s own party could be “very dangerous” for the president.
It makes it much more difficult for Bush to get support during the final two years of his presidency, increases the likelihood his policies will be seen by history as a mistake and puts his party in a very difficult position leading up to 2008, Zelizer said.
Bush believes that the “long march of history” will prove him right and is content to stand alone, if he must, until that day.
He is so sure of eventual success in Iraq that he once told some leading Republicans, “I will not withdraw even if Laura and Barney are the only ones supporting me,” referring to the first lady and his Scottish terrier, according to Bob Woodward’s recent book, “State of Denial.”
Bush has always said he sleeps soundly, admitting to no fretting about his decisions and no concern about polls. Johnson, by contrast, famously obsessed over the war night and day, asking to be awakened every time someone died.
“I’m wondering if this is not some kind of tragically misguided notion of statesmanship on the part of Bush, that there is something noble about ignoring public opinion,” said Margaret Susan Thompson, who teaches a Modern Presidency course at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School.