Amid challenge, Bush tries to appear strong


WASHINGTON - President Bush is struggling to emerge from one of the rockiest periods of his presidency, a time of bloodshed and disorder in Iraq, questions about whether his government could have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks and doubts about his foreign policy.

Bush spent the past week trying to appear strong and decisive amid a rush of negative news. But there were moments of unease. At his news conference Tuesday night, he seemed for a few moments to be perplexed, even nervous, when asked to name his biggest mistake since Sept. 11. The president eventually said he could think of none.

Yesterday, Bush was dogged by more questions about whether he had begun planning for an invasion of Iraq soon after 9/11 and perhaps had diverted attention away from routing al-Qaida. At a news conference with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain - an event designed to show a war ally standing solidly behind the president - Bush was asked whether he had ordered up an Iraq invasion plan less than two months after the United States attacked Afghanistan, an assertion made in a new book by Bob Woodward.

Bush responded by stressing that Afghanistan, not Iraq, was his focus right after Sept. 11. He could not recall, he said, when he called for an Iraq war plan.

"I can't remember exact dates that far back," the president said. "I don't remember in times of - what was being developed or not being developed. But I do know that it was Afghanistan that was on my mind. And I didn't really start focusing on Iraq until later on."

Advisers pleased

Advisers to Bush say they are heartened that the president's approval ratings have remained steady at just above 50 percent - a sign, they say, that supporters will stay loyal to him even through the roughest patches between now and the election. (No polls have yet been released gauging public reaction to Bush's appearances this week.)

Regardless of whether his performance this week was effective, some analysts say Bush was wise to speak out publicly on several occasions. The very fact that he chose to raise his profile and speak passionately on Iraq, they said, could reassure the public that its leader is aware of the difficulties yet remains confident.

Still, more perils may lie ahead that could challenge a president who declared early that he was seeking re-election on the strength of his record as a war leader. In Iraq, despite the continuing disorder and violence, the U.S.-led occupation authority faces a June 30 deadline to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqi people. It is far from clear that a transfer will be peaceful or orderly, and Americans could judge the president on how it unfolds.

The shift to Iraqi self-rule "will be a marker, both for voters and for Bush," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "People are going to gauge success at that point, and if the transfer doesn't happen or is a disaster, it's bad for Bush. People are going to react."

The president has absorbed criticism, at home and abroad, from those who say he brushed aside international concerns about invading Iraq and chose to pursue a mostly go-it-alone approach. Last week, though, Bush reached out to the United Nations, backing a U.N. resolution to legitimize a new interim government, with its members chosen by the United Nations.

His meeting with Blair yesterday seemed to underscore that Bush increasingly wants to portray himself as open to the counsel of other leaders and hopes to involve them in stabilizing Iraq.

Bush left it to Blair to publicly lay out a point-by-point strategy to improve the situation in Iraq. The plan, Blair explained, includes securing the country, sticking to the June 30 transfer-of-power deadline and investing in reconstruction.

International support

Some analysts say Bush seems to be learning that seeking international help may be the best way to generate public support, especially when the war is not going well. It is also a way to spread blame and responsibility, which might be vital for Bush to do to avoid a public backlash if the June 30 transfer becomes a failure.

The president stressed yesterday that he believes the United States is not alone in carrying the burdens.

"Britain and America and our allies," he said, "can either break our word to the people of Iraq, abandon them in their hour of need and consign them to oppression, or we can help them defeat the enemies of a free Iraq."

Chester A. Crocker, a Georgetown University professor of diplomacy who served as assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration, said the president "needs to reach out in every conceivable direction" for international support.

"We have got to bring in the U.N., and we are learning that lesson," Crocker said.

"People who have been down a road like this before would have told [Bush] if asked that you cannot assume the United States equals international legitimacy. ... You need political judgments and diplomatic finesse."

There's no telling whether the surge in attacks marks a temporary spike in violence or a new phase in a worsening war. After all, just days before Baghdad fell to coalition forces, Iraqi forces had appeared to bog down U.S. troops, prompting headlines that Bush's war could be failing. Days later, Bush was celebrating a military victory, and news coverage turned positive.

Open to compromise

But for now, the president seems more open to compromise. In addition to empowering the United Nations to craft the interim Iraqi government, Bush essentially conceded that violence has reached a level where more U.S. troops might be needed. At the same time, much of his rhetoric is unwavering.

Even as the 9/11 commission spent hours grilling administration officials over missed signals of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush at his news conference Tuesday refused to accept personal responsibility for the attacks and said he felt no regrets for his actions.

George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M; University, suggested that the president had calculated that while developments in Iraq demanded re-thinking, it was vital to appear resolute. He added that in a polarized electorate in which Democrats generally dislike Bush and Republicans overwhelmingly back him, a sliver of swing voters will base their voting decisions, in part, on whether they find Bush likable.

"I don't think politically it hurt him at all this past week to try to appear strong, stable and decisive," Edwards said. "But there does seem to be a feeling from him that we're never wrong. That stance could end up hurting him in the long term. People just generally don't respond well to a person who feels he's never wrong."

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