Washington, DC — Though the scion of a family steeped in politics and public service, George W. Bush remains a young president who came to the White House with relatively limited knowledge of the world and its ills. Yet for two years he has ridden high in public esteem, thanks to confident leadership after Sept. 11 and a surer political touch than his detractors give him credit for.
Is his luck about to turn in the winds and sands of Iraq?
It is quite true, as administration officials say with metronomic regularity, that coalition forces have scored singular successes in the early days of the war, and it is too early to rule out a speedy conclusion. But there have been military surprises and diplomatic shortfalls.
With every passing day, it is more evident that the failure to obtain permission from Turkey for American troops to cross its territory and open a northern front constituted a diplomatic debacle. With every passing day, it is more evident that the allies made two gross military misjudgments in concluding that coalition forces could safely bypass Basra and Nasiriya and that Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq would rise up against Saddam Hussein.
Already, the commander of American ground forces in the war zone has conceded that the war that they are fighting is not the one they and their officers had foreseen. “Shock and awe” neither shocked nor awed.
Other potential perils lie ahead. Among senior Washington political figures of both parties, four are mentioned most, as follows:
The war could last so long that the American public loses patience, having been conditioned by predictions from American officials (to quote one of them, Vice President Dick Cheney) that Mr. Hussein’s government would prove to be “a house of cards.” This has not happened yet; the polls indicate that nearly three of four Americans remain unshaken in their support of Mr. Bush’s war policies, despite surprises on the battlefield. The White House believes that public patience, often fickle in recent years, was fortified by 9/11.
Street-by-street fighting in the rubble of Baghdad and other cities — an eventuality that American strategists have long sought to avoid — now looks more likely. Mr. Hussein’s aides have promised savage resistance. If it materializes, it could produce large coalition casualties, challenging American resolve, and equally large Iraqi civilian casualties, with dire consequences for the coalition’s attempt to picture itself as the liberator of Iraq. A heart-rending picture of a wounded 2-year-old was widely published today after a Baghdad market was ripped apart by an explosion Iraqi officials attributed to a coalition bomb.
Saddam Hussein could escape, denying the war effort a definitive totem of victory. It sounds improbable, given the terrifying array of force available to the coalition, but other notorious figures remain at large despite intensive manhunts, including the wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and the Qaeda mastermind, Osama bin Laden.
The hunt for weapons of mass destruction could prove futile — a development that would make the war look like a wild-goose chase.
Of course, all that is a worst case prognosis. As the war in Afghanistan showed, hard military slogging can give way suddenly to victory. But will victory in Iraq take the shape the United States so badly needs?
Mr. Hussein seems to have decided that he can turn this war into Vietnam Redux. He appears willing to take casualties and to give away territory to gain time. Over time, his strategy implies, he thinks he can isolate the United States and build a coalition of third world nations. Already he is seen as less of an ogre and more of a defender of Islamic honor across the Arab world.
Most Republicans radiate confidence in not only military but also political and diplomatic success.
The longtime Republican pollster Robert Teeter said recently, “If we’ve gotten rid of Saddam and stabilized Iraq, then things will look pretty good.” Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, steadfast in his argument that that is precisely what will happen, told the naysayers on Friday that “it’s a bit early for history to be written.”
Democrats are more dubious.
“Saddam won’t win,” said Richard C. Holbrooke, the former United States representative at the United Nations. “Unlike L.B.J. in Vietnam, Bush won’t quit. He’s a different kind of Texan. He’ll escalate and keep escalating. In the end his military strategy will probably succeed in destroying Saddam.
“But it may result in a Muslim jihad against us and our friends. Achieving our narrow objective of regime change may take so long and trigger so many consequences that it’s no victory at all. Our ultimate goal, which is promoting stability in the Middle East, may well prove elusive.”
Mr. Bush came to office determined, by his own account, not to swagger and not to overreach. “If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us,” he said in the second presidential debate against Al Gore in 2000. “If we’re a humble nation but strong, they’ll welcome us.” That was a promise to check hubris at the door, an effort to guard against the temptation to believe that because he had such awesome power at his fingertips, he could and should use it to achieve grandiose objectives.
Like remaking a chaotic region in our own democratic image.
The very term “shock and awe” has a swagger to it, no doubt because it was intended to discourage Mr. Hussein and his circle. But it rings hollow now, and there are other signs of overconfidence. A reserve officer was told some time ago, for example, that he would be needed as part of a provisional government in Baghdad, on March 28.
For the moment, Mr. Bush seems secure. People like him. None of his possible Democratic opponents loom as a major threat, not so far.
Still, for presidents, especially for wartime leaders, political capital can drain quickly from the White House account. After the guns fall silent, voters’ eyes turn elsewhere, often to social and economic needs. It happened to Winston Churchill late in World War II, and as this president remembers better than most, it happened to his father, too.