President Bush had a narrow brush with disaster last week as the casualties mounted amid escalating Iraqi violence. The daily tracking polls of Scott Rasmussen show that 10 days ago Bush was three points ahead of Kerry. His attack ads had the Democrat reeling. Then, from April 3-7, Bush fell by nine points and ended his crash trailing Kerry by six.
Only Condoleezza Rice's testimony stopped the bleeding. By two to one, her testimony favorably impressed voters while they rated her antagonist, Richard Clarke, negatively by 27 percent to 42 percent. So, by this past weekend Bush had again moved ahead of Kerry, this time by two points.
But it was a close call. The bloodshed in Iraq has left Americans unsure of Bush's leadership. Only 48 percent now believe we're winning the war on terror, down six points from last week. More seriously, Bush's lead over Kerry on the question of who would do better at handling the war on terror dropped from 54-36 to only 51-40. Almost half of Americans now give Bush a negative rating on handling Iraq.
Bush will be in real trouble if the situation in Iraq deteriorates. The reported boast of one anti-American demonstrator that he and his ilk "cannot drive America out of Iraq, but we can drive Bush out of the White House, like we did to Carter" is not far-fetched.
So what is Bush to do?
Procedurally, the June 30 deadline for handover of power to the Iraqi government looks like an essential element in the president's escape from political danger. But behind it must lie a humility and a realization of our limited means and the even more attenuated patience of the American people.
We were willing to support Bush in Afghanistan and over the Patriot Act. We backed the invasion of Iraq and agreed that Saddam needed to be removed. Even when no weapons of mass destruction turned up, the American people still supported Bush.
But last week's polling suggests that Americans are not prepared to sacrifice their sons and daughters to assure democracy in Iraq. That nation, which has never known freedom, may or may not be able to achieve democracy. But Americans are not willing to bet our children on the outcome. Nor should Bush wager his presidency.
As long as Saddam Hussein and his Ba'athist Party is out of power – and does not return – the United States will have accomplished its essential objective in Iraq. Saddam is an evil man. His villainy, coupled with his access to oil wealth, made him a potent threat to peace and freedom. He had to go.
To make sure he remains out of power, we must keep a large garrison, safely ensconced at a secure base, in Iraq once we hand over power to the Iraqi Governing Council.
But democracy may be a bridge too far in Iraq; even peace may be elusive. We must heed the lessons of Nixon's successful disengagement from Vietnam. As Nixon did, we must turn the war over to the locals, a process he called Vietnamization. But, this time, we must not let the Democrats in Congress tie our hands. We've got to retain the freedom, flexibility and logistical ability to intervene again if the forces of evil come back to power.
If Bush hangs on in Iraq, insisting on "nation building," he will leave public opinion behind. The resulting bitter alienation will cripple our ability to act against terror in other places, cost him the presidency and probably make future intervention in Iraq impossible.
Bush is leading America in a crucial crusade to rid the world of terrorism. He needs an energetic, committed and largely united nation behind him. He must not squander those priceless assets in a dead-end pursuit of an ideal Iraq. A Saddam-less one is enough for one administration to achieve and to be thankful for.