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Published: Friday, 3/17/2006

Public relations stunts can't obscure reality in Iraq

WHEN all else fails Karl Rove and Co. revert to the tried and true strategy of reinforcing public support for the wartime President. It's un-American to abandon George W. and the party that claims him when the nation is engaged in battle. "Support our troops" means support our commander in chief. The tactic has worked to win elections and marginalize administration critics.

So it's not surprising the old public relations stunt to paint the President as an unshakable wartime leader is being refurbished for traction in the upcoming midterm elections. The goal is to prop Dubya up in front of lots of red, white, and blue bunting, preferably in a military setting, where it doesn't really matter what he says, just that he looks the part. He's only there to assure prime-time audiences that he's on top of things in Iraq despite what they have seen and heard.

If the White House succeeds in turning the President's dismal 36 percent approval rating around and fooling enough voters to maintain a GOP lock on government control in November, my hat's off to all the President's men. But I'm betting it won't and here's why. Support for the war is wavering in essential quarters.

Negative feelings about the way the war is going are increasingly being registered by Americans with close military ties to Iraq. Americans either in the military or with family members who serve may have held their tongues a year or two or three ago when the President launched his pre-emptive invasion to rout Saddam Hussein and replace a dictatorship with democracy. They believed as did many civilians that the administration must know far more than they about the imminent danger Baghdad posed to the world.

But as the United States enters its fourth year of war in Iraq in what was supposed to be a quick engagement, polls show over half of those who have served or have family members in Iraq think things are going badly for the U.S. Recently I overheard a local soldier who returned from two tours of duty in Baghdad weigh in about the insurgency/ sectarian violence/ civil war roiling Iraq.

The military man muttered that if Iraqis don't want freedom we should get the heck out of their way. No sense in our guys dying in the middle of their fighting, he said. Certainly he didn't speak for all in the military but, for the first time, his comments exposed a tiny crack in his previously unshakable support for the President's Iraqi campaign. The reservations expressed by some in uniform reflect growing pessimism in the country at large over Iraq.

Not only do an increasing number of Americans believe the war is going badly, many believe it won't get any better. It's not about building new schools anymore. According to a CBS News poll, an overwhelming number of Americans have already conceded Iraq to civil war and almost half are confident the U.S. efforts there will not succeed. Most of those surveyed also expect the war to last at least two more years with 27 percent predicting the war will last another five or more years.

The President's political fortunes are tied to the military attack he ordered against Iraq on March 19, 2003, and two thirds of Americans think that's why he paints too rosy a picture of the post-invasion reality.

He's at it again, beginning what one writer described as a "new charm offensive" to persuade Americans that U.S. forces are "making progress" against the insurgents and that freedom-loving Iraqis won't let "a violent minority" derail their plans for a broad-based government of national unity.

And all lived happily ever after. But in the meantime, the death toll of U.S. military members in Iraq has pushed past 2,300. Wounded soldiers number over 16,000. Tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens have perished and casualties mount daily from routine car bombings, kidnappings, and brutal killings among rival Muslims.

Plus there are no indications when or if Iraqi security forces will ever be adequate enough to stabilize the country without ongoing U.S. military involvement. Total troop withdrawal in Iraq is probably a pipe dream. The nearly three-year-old war that is costing taxpayers $5.9 billion a month and approaching the grand sum of $300 billion could curse Americans indefinitely.

And still, the wartime President insists that forcing regime change in Baghdad based on utterly false premises of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction was worth the human sacrifice and impossible work of cornered American occupiers.

"I strongly believe our country is better off with Saddam Hussein out of power," he declared in his last weekly radio address. Who besides Karl Rove and Co. can buy the lie after all they've seen and heard?



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