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 Post subject: Battling combat fatigue
PostPosted: Sun Mar 19, 2006 12:57 am 

Joined: Sat Jan 14, 2006 4:13 pm
Posts: 1672
Location: South Australia
Battling combat fatigue
The war is in danger of being lost in the US, reports Washington correspondent Geoff Elliott

March 18, 2006
ON the eve of the third anniversary of the Iraq war, George W. Bush is out on the hustings again, trying to make the case for continued US engagement there. It has worked before. Bush is a master at the on-the-stump speeches to connect with the American public. There was a bounce in his polling numbers after a similar campaign in November and December. But since then the mood continues to sour in the US about how the Bush administration is handling Iraq.

Several polls during the week pointed to the weakness of the US President's popularity - his approval ratings have sunk to record lows for him of 33 per cent to 37 per cent - and disapproval of the Iraq war is consistently at about 60 per cent.

With more than 2300 US soldiers dead and with Iraq probably facing a civil war, both Democrats and some Republicans are questioning why the American military should be caught in the middle. The calls are increasing to bring the troops home.

But Bush sees it differently. While some argue the presence of coalition forces fuels the insurgency, the administration is determined to keep troops in Iraq until peace is secured.

"We still have difficult work ahead in Iraq," Bush said this week in the first of a series of speeches on the war that he'll make during the next few weeks. "I wish I could tell you that the violence is waning and that the road ahead will be smooth. It will not. There will be more tough fighting and more days of struggle, and we will see more images of chaos and carnage in the days and months to come."

But he added: "The terrorists are losing on the field of battle, so they are fighting this war through the pictures we see on television and in the newspapers every day. They're hoping to shake our resolve and force us to retreat. They are not going to succeed."

Most Americans, 56 per cent, believe Bush is out of touch, a poll by the independent Pew Research Centre has found. Respondents were asked for a one-word description of Bush and the most frequent response was "incompetent". Next was "good", "idiot" and "liar". Compare this with February 2005, when the most frequent reply was "honest".

When another recent poll asked if Iraq was worth the cost, 29 per cent of Americans said yes but 63 per cent said no.

When asked if the US could win a war without the support of the American people, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Peter Pace said: "No, you cannot. Therefore it's very important that we get more of the entire picture to the American people. I believe that the American people who are able to see all that is happening in Iraq would understand much better that progress is being made. It is not a great smiley picture, nor is it a disaster. What it is, is a very tough environment that still has a lot of work to be done."

Bush says he doesn't look at the polls and, with three years left in the presidency, that's probably a wise decision. But the problem is Republicans in Congress do look at them and they are starting to watch their backs ahead of congressional mid-term elections in November. The conservative base appears to be splintering and conservative commentators are becoming increasingly critical of the administration's handling of the war.

Conservative writer William F. Buckley wrote in the lead-up to this weekend's anniversary: "One can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed ... Our mission has failed because Iraqi animosities have proved uncontainable by an invading army of 130,000 Americans."

He said the administration assumed Iraqis would suspend their internal divisions "in order to get on with life in a political structure that guaranteed them religious freedom". Another assumption was that the "invading American army would succeed in training Iraqi soldiers and policy-makers to cope with insurgents bent on violence". This, he said, had not happened. "And the administration has, now, to cope with failure."

Richard Armitage, the former deputy US secretary of state in Bush's first term, is openly critical of the handling of the war. He told The Australian in a recent interview that the troubles in Iraq stem from a lack of troops on the ground. He says the Iraq war has given the Bush administration "tunnel vision".

"It is a great debate whether it was a mistake or not, but I think most realise we are in it for better or for worse and it was a war of choice," Armitage says.

"Being a war of choice, we absolutely have to come out on top, but it's getting ever more difficult in Iraq.

"Iraq right now is staring into the abyss of a civil war. I'm not saying they're in it but they are staring into the abyss. I think there is no question that the handling has been wrong; that the troop levels were wrong. We had more than enough troops to secure the victory and far too few to secure the peace.

"A core principle of land warfare is the notion that it takes a soldier with a bayonet to bend an enemy to our will and it takes a soldier with a rifle to take and hold ground. This seems to have been forgotten by our civilian and our uniformed leadership."

And what Republicans fear is that the American public will start holding them accountable in Congress for the administration's mistakes.

A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll this week indicated that 61 per cent believed the Iraq war would be a very important, or the most important, issue in deciding their vote for Congress. Even more worrying for Bush's Republicans, respondents preferred Democrats over Republicans in handling Iraq by 48per cent to 40 per cent. That Democrats have opened a lead on Republicans in Congress leaves many people contemplating what appeared to be impossible just 12 months ago, after Bush's stunning election victory and an ambitious legislative reform program.

Now there's a chance that Democrats will win one or both houses of Congress come November and, fearing that outcome, Republicans in Congress are more willing to speak out against the administration.

Take Minnesota senator Norm Coleman. He is close to the Bush administration but urged the President this week to renew the team around him. He said White House handling of the response to Hurricane Katrina, the failed nomination of Bush's close friend Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court and, more recently, Bush's handling of a plan for a United Arab Emirates company to buy six of the biggest US seaports were evidence of political missteps.

"All of a sudden we're hearing the phrase tin ear," Coleman said this week. "That's a phrase you shouldn't hear. The fact that you're hearing it says that the kind of political sensitivity, the ear to the ground that you need in the White House, isn't there at the level that it needs to be.

"For the good of the team, a line of fresh legs, or in this case, fresh political antennae, I think would better serve this President. I think it's obvious to those on the [Capitol] Hill and it's got to be obvious to those at the White House that we're skipping too many beats nowadays. We're not operating at the highest level of political sensitivity that you need."

Charlie Cook, whose Cook Political Report has been analysing US elections since 1984, says the trends do not look promising for Republicans. "By almost every relevant measurement, national polls indicate that Republicans are at least as bad off as Democrats were at this point in 1994, before suffering devastating midterm losses."

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