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Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The New York Times > Washington > News Analysis: Bush's New Problem: Iraq Could Eclipse Big Domestic Agenda

The New York Times > Washington > News Analysis: Bush's New Problem: Iraq Could Eclipse Big Domestic Agenda: "December 22, 2004
Bush's New Problem: Iraq Could Eclipse Big Domestic Agenda
December 22, 2004
Bush's New Problem: Iraq Could Eclipse Big Domestic Agenda

WASHINGTON, Dec. 21 - The deadly attack on a United States military base in northern Iraq on Tuesday scrambled the Bush administration's hopes of showing progress toward stability there, while making clear that the war is creating a nasty array of problems for President Bush as he gears up for an ambitious second term.

Despite weathering criticism of his Iraq policy during the presidential campaign, Mr. Bush is heading into his next four years in the White House facing a public that appears increasingly worried about the course of events in Iraq and wondering where the exit is.

And as he prepares to take the oath of office a second time and to focus more of his energy on a far-reaching domestic agenda, he is at risk of finding his presidency so consumed by Iraq for at least the next year that he could have trouble pressing ahead with big initiatives like the overhauling of Social Security. At the same time, Mr. Bush faces fundamental questions about his strategy for bringing stability to Iraq. How can the United States - with the help of Iraqi security forces whose performance has been uneven at best - assure the safety of Iraqis who go to the polls on Jan. 30 when it cannot keep its own troops safe on their own base?

And are Mr. Bush and his defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, more vulnerable to criticism that they have failed to provide American forces with everything they need to take on a shadowy, fast-evolving enemy that, as the Tuesday attack showed, continues to display a notable degree of resilience?

The situation has left the White House sending two somewhat contradictory messages. One, alluded to by Mr. Bush at his news conference on Monday and stated explicitly by other administration officials on Tuesday, is that no one should expect either the violence to abate after the first round of elections on Jan. 30 or the United States to begin bringing troops home next year in substantial numbers.

"There should be no illusion," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said on Tuesday, "that suddenly right after the election the Iraqis are going to be able to take over their own security. Certainly, we're going to be there through '05 in significant numbers."

The other message is that progress is being made in Iraq, that the insurgency will eventually be quelled and that there is no reason to change course.

"The idea of democracy taking hold in what was a place of tyranny and hatred and destruction is such a hopeful moment in the history of the world," Mr. Bush said Tuesday after visiting with wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "I'm confident democracy will prevail in Iraq."

But Mr. Bush also said it was "a time of sorrow and sadness," and after meeting with Mr. Bush in the Oval Office early on Tuesday afternoon, Kweisi Mfume, the outgoing president of the N.A.A.C.P., described the president to reporters as "obviously distraught" over the loss of life from the attack.

For a year, the administration has suggested that Iraq would move closer to stability as it reached one milestone after another: the capture of Saddam Hussein; the handover of sovereignty and the appointment of an interim government; the deployment of Iraqi security forces; the military campaign to expel the insurgents from strongholds like Falluja; and the first round of elections next month.

Yet most of those milestones have passed with little discernible improvement in the security situation. Now some analysts are concerned that the elections could make the political situation in Iraq even more unstable by producing an outcome in which the Sunni minority feels so marginalized by the Shiite majority that it fuels not just further violence against Americans and Iraqis working with them but also more intense sectarian strife or even civil war.

The elections on Jan. 30 will be sandwiched between two critically important moments for Mr. Bush: his second inaugural on Jan. 20 and the first State of the Union address of his second term, probably in the first week of February.

As a result, the degree to which the elections come off smoothly or not, and whether they move Iraq toward stability or even greater chaos, could well put an early stamp on Mr. Bush's new term. And the elections and whatever violence surrounds them could compete with or overshadow his calls for action on changing Social Security, rewriting the tax code, revising the immigration laws and stiffening educational standards, among other domestic plans the White House intends to begin rolling out in January.

Supporters of Mr. Bush dismissed the idea that his Iraq policy was proving wrongheaded or that the difficulties in Iraq would torpedo the rest of the president's agenda by sapping his political support.

"On Iraq, what we've learned is that Americans are capable of worrying about something and simultaneously supporting it," said David Frum, a former speechwriter for Mr. Bush. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mr. Frum said, Mr. Bush understands the importance of leveling with the American people about the situation and making clear why it is important to see the job through.

But polls have shown for months that majorities or near-majorities of Americans think that invading Iraq was a mistake or not worth the cost in lives, money and prestige abroad.

"The big risk for the president is that if this continues to escalate, it could overtake much of what he wants to do," said Warren Rudman, the former Republican senator from New Hampshire, referring to the insurgency. "If this is in some way a precursor of an escalation into a more sophisticated attack by the guerilla insurgents, it would make members of Congress very uneasy and the American people very uneasy."

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