Published on Thursday, September 22, 2005 by the Canadian Press
Public Pressure Mounts for Bush to Curtail Iraq War After Katrina Disaster
by Beth Gorham
WASHINGTON - President George W. Bush says he can wage war in Iraq and still pay most of the huge bill for rebuilding the hurricane-lashed Gulf Coast. Most Americans don't agree with him. And for the first time, Bush is facing a serious revolt in his own party over how to pay for hurricane relief.
Republicans already edgy about the estimated $200-billion US price tag to clean up after Katrina were bracing for more damage by week's end as hurricane Rita hurtled toward Texas and the battered Louisiana coast.
For now, they're split on whether to cut domestic programs or add billions more to the whopping $333-billion U.S. deficit, options that Americans clearly aren't favouring in opinion polls.
And with congressional elections looming next year, analysts say legislators are increasingly feeling the heat from voters who tell pollsters the Iraq war was a mistake and Bush is spending too much there.
If the tide of public opinion doesn't budge, Bush may not be able to withstand an abrupt change in priorities, said Charles Cushman, a politics professor at George Washington University.
"His supporters in Congress could abandon him if he's not going to be able to help them get re-elected," he said.
"There will be tremendous pressure to declare victory no matter what's going on in Iraq and go home."
A new Gallup survey Wednesday reported a record high in the percentage of Americans favouring a reduction of U.S. troops in Iraq, with 63 per cent saying some or all of them should come home.
The opinion shift on troop withdrawal was similar among Republicans, Democrats and independents.
And 54 per cent of Americans chose less spending on Iraq over other means of paying for Katrina, including increasing the deficit, cutting domestic programs or raising taxes, an option Bush has ruled out.
Public approval of Bush's handling of Iraq tumbled eight points in just the last week, to 32 per cent.
An Iraq backlash from Katrina was evident in other recent polls, including an Associated Press-Ipsos survey this week in which two-thirds said Bush was spending too much on the war.
As well, a recent New York Times survey suggested more than eight in 10 Americans are concerned about the $5 billion US spent each month in Iraq, with support for the war falling to an all-time low.
Still, only 26 per cent said they expected U.S. troops to be withdrawn within two years.
"Technically, it is possible for the administration to continue to wage war in Iraq and launch huge domestic efforts," said Will Dobson, managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine.
"The question is whether either can be done to the expectations of the public," he said. "And now Bush is in complete damage control mode."
The president's record low approval ratings after the bungled response to Katrina didn't improve following a nationally televised speech last week where he promised to fund one of the world's largest reconstruction efforts.
In a recent editorial, Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the aftermath of Katrina will "inevitably" increase political pressure on Bush to reduce his involvement in Iraq and spend more to rebuild or improve the country's capacity to deal with future disasters.
Even before Katrina stuck, there were increasing concerns about the effectiveness of the Iraq effort, which has gobbled nearly $200 billion US and claimed the lives of nearly 2,000 U.S. soldiers.
Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan's vigil last month near Bush's Texas ranch also renewed national focus on the war and its toll on the 140,000 soldiers there.
But analysts say it was clearly Katrina that sparked an abrupt spike in discontent, against the backdrop last week of the deadliest day in Baghdad since the March 2003 invasion, when more than 150 people were killed in suicide bombings.
And the hurricane catastrophe has supplied renewed energy for anti-war groups planning massive rallies in the U.S. capital this weekend.
Some groups are now specifically targeting individual U.S. legislators on the issue of whether they're soft on national security.
"The terrible tragedy of Katrina brought a silver lining and that's more scrutiny of Bush's foreign and domestic policy," said Bill Dobbs, media co-ordinator for United for Peace and Justice.
"We've got to put Congress on the hot seat. Congress gave George Bush the authority and money to wage this war. Now they have to hold him accountable."
And that's exactly the president's weak spot, said Cushman, who notes that much of the war costs have been borrowed and China holds a lot of the U.S. debt.
"Even considering the Reagan deficits, which were enormous, these guys make them look like pikers," he said. "They're spending money like drunken sailors."
The question, said Cushman, is whether Democrats can mount an effective case against waste and abusive government in next year's elections.
That kind of campaign worked well on the flip side for former speaker Newt Gingrich, credited with in 1994 with marshalling the electoral success that allowed Republicans to take control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.
"Democrats might actually get their act together now. There's a counter-case to be made," said Cushman.
"It could be a very compelling indictment of malfeasance and incompetence in office."
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