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Democrats Question President's Iraq Policy Amid Controversy Over Pre-War Intelligence - 2003-07-11

Continuing attacks against U.S. soldiers in Iraq combined with a growing controversy over pre-war intelligence have prompted opposition Democrats to raise new questions about President Bush's foreign policy record. There was a bit of a sea change in Washington this week. The wide public-backing of the president's foreign policy had long intimidated Democrats. But rising casualties among U.S. troops in Iraq and a White House admission of faulty pre-war intelligence have Democrats on the offensive.

"I am now concerned that we have the world's best trained soldiers serving as policemen in what seems to be a shooting gallery," said Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy.

Democrats running for president were quick to join the fray as well. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry supported the war in Iraq but now questions the administration's post-war approach.

Mr. Kerry also raised the specter of the long and bloody U.S. involvement in Vietnam. "I learned a long time ago in Vietnam what happens when pride gets in the way of making honest decisions," he said.

But it was not just Democrats raising concerns. Republican John McCain had these words of caution for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a Senate hearing on Iraq.

"The problem here is that Americans are unsure about the future of our involvement in Iraq," he said. "And I am convinced without a doubt that when Americans are told what the plan is for post-war Iraq, then I think you will receive overwhelming support on the part of the American people."

For his part, President Bush was eager to defend the effort in Iraq during his trip to Africa.

"There is no question we have got a security issue in Iraq and we are just going to have to deal with it person by person," he said. "We are going to have to remain tough."

Administration officials say U.S. troops may have to remain in Iraq for years to come. But Defense Secretary Rumsfeld tried to calm congressional fears, saying the security concerns are exaggerated.

"There seems to be a widely held impression that the regime loyalists are operating freely throughout the country, attacking coalition forces at will," he said. "That is clearly not the case. Large portions of Iraq are stable."

Back at home, the president's public approval rating remains strong at about 60 percent in most polls. But some new surveys indicate declining public confidence in how the administration is handling the aftermath of the Iraq war.

Political analysts like Charles Cook say the Democrats now sense a political opening that was not there before.

"The foreign policy situation, though it is still obviously, very clearly the president's strong suit, you know, it is not hard to paint a picture where his huge strength in the foreign policy realm isn't quite the asset in November of next year that it is today," explained Mr. Cook. "So I think the situation really is more complicated."

The polls also suggest the president's real weakness as he looks ahead to his re-election campaign next year is how voters view his handling of the U.S. economy.

Analyst Stuart Rothenberg predicts the Democrats will emphasize the president's vulnerability on the economy while at the same time trying to chip away at his long standing advantage on foreign policy.

"They don't have to win national security, they are not going to win national security as an issue come next November," he said. "They are just trying to neutralize it the way Bush neutralized education, not get beat too badly [on the issue] so that it colors the entire [election] cycle."

But Republican political strategists say the Democrats are trying to play a losing hand. Former Republican Party spokesman Clifford May says President Bush built strong public support with his response to the 2001 terrorist attacks. He says it will take a lot more than the current concerns over Iraq to undermine the public's confidence in Mr. Bush.

"I would argue that voters will prefer a president who is willing to do too much to protect American security over a candidate who suggests he is likely to do too little," he said.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that only 23 percent of those surveyed felt the military effort in Iraq is going "very well." That is down from 61 percent in April. But the same poll also found that 66 percent of those asked still favor a major U.S. commitment to rebuilding Iraq.