At Last, Bush Begins Countering Bad News From Iraq With Good

Posted October 17, 2003 at 4:05pm

I took a little poll the other day in President Bush’s home territory of West Texas, and the result shows why he needed to mount a concerted drive to win public support for his Iraq policy. [IMGCAP(1)]

OK, it wasn’t a scientific sample. Participating in a panel discussion on the 2004 election at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin in Odessa, 25 miles from Bush’s hometown of Midland, I asked for a show of hands on whether those in the audience believe the Iraq war was “worth it.”

The result, in an audience of 800 or so, was 50-50. Undoubtedly the sample was skewed by the presence of former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader and California populist Arianna Huffington on the panel. Nader received 900 votes in Midland and Ector counties in 2000.

Still, this was Bush country, and the audience held more ordinary townspeople than students and faculty.

The result told me that, even among Bush’s neighbors and friends, there is deep misgiving about the war’s aftermath — undoubtedly the result, at least in part, of the administration’s failure to get out good news to counter the bad constantly carried in the media.

What the media have reported on — bombings, assassinations and riots in Iraq, as well as intra-administration intrigue and Democratic Bush-bashing — is all legitimate news.

But so is the progress — the arming and training of the 70,000-person Iraqi security forces, restoration of pre-war electricity and oil output, and creation of 88 neighborhood councils in Baghdad and a 37-member city council.

Until the past few weeks, the administration had done a miserable job of getting out the word about the progress — leading to more polls showing that the public doubts Bush has a coherent plan for Iraq.

It was not until Wednesday, as Congress was already voting on President Bush’s $87 billion supplemental funding bill for Iraq, that the administration sent Members a report on Iraq administrator Paul Bremer’s strategy for reconstruction and democratization.

To find out what progress the administration had to report, an ordinary citizen would have to log onto the White House Web site, find its Office of Global Communications and then search out a page called “The Global Messenger.”

I care, write and talk a lot about Iraq policy and I didn’t know it was there. You can find it at www.whitehouse.gov/ogc.

So, it should be no surprise that the Washington Post/ABC News poll last week found that, by 54 percent to 41 percent, voters think Bush lacks “a clear plan for handling the situation in Iraq.”

In September, a Gallup poll found that voters opposed Bush’s $87 billion aid request for Iraq by a slim margin, 51 percent to 46 percent. In mid-October, the margin was 57-41.

A National Public Radio poll conducted by Republican Bill McInturff and Democrat Stan Greenberg showed that 35 percent of likely voters believe the Iraq war was “successful and worth the cost,” 32 percent say it was successful but not worth the cost, and 28 percent feel it was not successful and not worth the cost.

The polls might be even worse if, in addition to all the other stories about administration differences, more people knew about a story published Oct. 10 by New York Daily News Washington bureau chief Thomas DeFrank, who has superb sources in the Bush entourage.

DeFrank cited unnamed “officials” and “sources” as saying that Bush’s recent appointment of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to coordinate Iraq policy reflects his “deep unhappiness” with — and intention to replace, if re-elected — Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

One “source” said “the president feels let down. He feels as if Rumsfeld was unwilling to come and get help (for the post-war effort) and thinks his inability to trust anyone other than his immediate subordinates created a serious, ongoing problem in both Afghanistan and Iraq.”

The source added that “Powell has basically absented himself from this situation because he wanted Rumsfeld to fail — and, believe me, the president’s unhappy about that, too.”

That DeFrank could write such a story is evidence that administration officials are waging a virtual civil war of leaks against each other.

As further evidence, a Washington Post critique of Rice’s performance quoted “a senior State Department official” as saying that the proper “one word description” of the NSC under Bush is “dysfunctional.”

At last, Bush has begun a counteroffensive against the bad news, giving interviews to regional news organizations to bypass — and put pressure on — the major media. Asked who’s in charge of Iraq policy, he asserted, “I am.”

It’s a failure on his and his aides’ part that such moves are necessary. Bremer had a strategy before last week. It was and is to secure the country by taking on enemies militarily and to restore urgent services, expand international cooperation both for security and reconstruction and accelerate the orderly transition to Iraqi self-government.

The report cites impressive moves on all fronts. In addition, as USA Today reported last week, news organizations like ABC News — the most negative of all networks on Iraq, according to surveys — have decided to start looking for “progress” stories as well as disasters.

There’s no certainty that U.S. policy will succeed in Iraq, but Americans at least should have a balanced picture of it. Maybe now they’ll start getting one.