The tough job of changing public opinion on Iraq

Bush's new Iraq strategy is not only a difficult sell, but a race against time


Tue, Jan 16, 2007 - Page 9

US officials, acknowledging that the war in Iraq may get worse before it gets better, face a public relations challenge as the White House pursues a new strategy to squash insurgents.

After President George W. Bush's address to the nation this week, in which he promoted his strategy to increase the US military presence in Iraq, his aides conceded that more troops would mean more fighting and possibly more grisly televised images.

That prospect will do little to help the administration as it seeks to build public support for an increasingly unpopular war. Even if all goes according to plan, officials conceded in interviews, early signs of progress will do little to compete with continued or worsening signs of strife.

"They need to engage these guys if they're going to make progress, and yet that's probably going to lead to less favorable news," said Thomas Patterson, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "He's in the position of trying to carry a piano upstairs."

Administration officials said that their strategy to quell the violence in Baghdad was in a race against dwindling public patience, but that it was a race they believed they could win. They said in interviews that they factored a potential spike in violence into the plan, and the effect it would have on public opinion.

They described a likely, initial increase in violence as an inevitable down payment for the better images out of Baghdad they hope will come later, and ultimately, more support for the Iraq campaign.

"The president gets it," said a senior administration official involved in the planning. "He knows public opinion is not going to change until those images on the evening news improve."

That official said reaching milestones would help, like a show of readiness by new Iraqi forces, or a law creating a mechanism to distribute oil revenue across the sectarian divide.

But such benchmarks also give war critics in Congress a more clear-cut way to measure failure, said Dennis Ross, a Middle East envoy for former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.

"It gives you an actual measure by which to say, `How are they doing: Are these things happening, or not?'" he said. "In an interesting way what the president has done for the first time is to create benchmarks to evaluate the administration's approach."

Even if the economic and political goals in the plan are swiftly achieved, they will only go so far in affecting public opinion as fighting continues. Images from a signing ceremony for an oil agreement are inevitably less compelling than pictures of exploding cars, charred bodies and American war dead.

The complexities are causing no small bit of anxiety for Bush's allies, chief among them Republican Senator John McCain, whose support of a troop increase will be judged on its success during his likely presidential bid next year.

McCain said in an interview this week that he did not expect to see significant improvement on the ground in Iraq for "at least a couple of months," adding: "I very much worry about the casualties, from the human side to the political side."

The senator, who has harshly criticized the administration's failure to manage expectations in the past, said of the president: "I would hope he would say how tough this is going to still be."

White House officials said that was the plan.

"You've heard the president say before that, as commander in chief, one of his most important responsibilities is informing the public about the course of the war," said Kevin Sullivan, White House communications director. "You'll see an ongoing effort to do that."

Bush stopped short of calling for great national sacrifice in his address, something allies had suggested he do to prepare the public for rough days ahead.

But he did warn: "Our enemies in Iraq will make every effort to ensure that our television screens are filled with images of death and suffering. Yet over time, we can expect to see Iraqi troops chasing down murderers, fewer brazen acts of terror and growing trust and cooperation from Baghdad's residents."

But for now, Bush's decision to add troops -- despite election results widely interpreted as a "no" vote on the war -- has been taken as another sign that he is stubbornly going his own way against the public mood, a perception the White House was prepared for, senior administration officials said.

Gambling metaphors were hard to escape this week in the news coverage of the plan, but they applied. The White House calculated that it had to promise a major change to get the public to give its latest new plan a hearing. But it raised the stakes for the administration.

"It's a tremendous gamble -- the administration opens itself up to losing control of the policy if it isn't judged as succeeding," said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department official. "There's a sense now that, with this, we will have done everything we can."