With next year's U.S. presidential race drawing closer, President Bush's handling of foreign policy and national security, especially his conduct of the war on terrorism, is expected to play a large role in his re-election chances. Americans are giving him high marks for his handling of Iraq, but some analysts say setbacks in the Middle East could soon impede Mr. Bush's bid for re-election.
Earlier this month, President Bush declared a free Iraq will no longer serve as a haven for terrorists and will help stabilize the region. Just days later, a powerful terrorist bomb blew apart the United Nations compound in Baghdad, illustrating there may be a long way to go before that goal is achieved
Following the blast, the Pentagon's top commander in the region, General John Abizaid, called terrorism Iraq's number one security threat. "Clearly they're going after Iraqis that are cooperating with us," he said. "They're going after soft targets of the international community."
The optimism about peace in the Middle East was further eroded with another Palestinian suicide bombing in Jerusalem last week. The blast left the U.S.-backed road map for peace in grave danger.
It was a blow to the hopes that the peace process was now headed in the right direction, expressed by Mr. Bush just last month. "We've seen important progress towards peace over the last 13 months and we see even more progress today, here in Washington and in the region as well," he said.
But in the wake of the Jerusalem bombing, Israel has resumed targeted assassinations of suspected Palestinian terrorists. And, Palestinian militants have dropped their cease-fire and are now calling for new attacks on Israelis.
Janine Zacharia is Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, and a veteran observer of U.S. involvement in the Middle East. "With things going so badly in Iraq, you had such a twin blow on Tuesday when you had the bombing in Baghdad and the bombing in Jerusalem," she said. "It seemed like the Middle East peace process is in shambles."
She thinks President Bush may now be facing one of his toughest foreign policy challenges yet. "One of the arguments that he made for doing regime change in Iraq was that it would help pave the way for smoother negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians," Ms. Zacharia said. "But in terms of day to day conflict, I don't see how it's really impacted. So he's really going to have to prove that thesis that this was actually going to help resolve the conflict."
And do that at a time when a field of Democratic presidential hopefuls are ready to challenge the president's record on foreign policy, says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.
"Clearly the president has been looking for one big success in this area," he said. "He thought he had it in Afghanistan, he thought he had it in Iraq. Right now it looks like it's fading away. If there is a sense that there is no economic rebound a year from now, and the president continues to have these problems, we continue to have casualties or deaths in Iraq every day, then the president is going to lose re-election."
But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is among those who believe these setbacks overlook what he believes is the larger and more positive picture of the progress that is being made in Iraq.
"I think characterizing it as deteriorating is a misunderstanding of what is taking place there," he said. "It's tough, there are setbacks but there is solid progress being made."
So far, public opinion polls continue to give President Bush strong support on his handling of foreign policy despite setbacks in the Middle East. And analysts say if former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is killed or captured, many of the on-going questions and concerns about U.S. involvement in post-war Iraq will likely fade.