Concern grows over deficit, U.S. military casualties in Iraq, rising postwar costs

Posted: Sunday, August 31, 2003

WASHINGTON A cheerful President Bush stood in the Rose Garden five weeks ago and boasted that Iraq was growing more peaceful, al-Qaida was being dismantled and ''pretty good progress'' was under way toward peace in the Middle East.

His optimism turned out to be premature on all three counts.

Bombings in Baghdad and Israel, and what Bush called an infiltration of ''al-Qaida-type fighters'' into Iraq, shattered any illusions that peace was closer in the region or that the terror organization was going out of business.

As the president returns to work after a month of vacationing and re-election fund raising, he faces rising concerns in Congress even from members of his own party over U.S. military casualties in Iraq and rising postwar costs.

Seriously complicating the equation: a soaring U.S. budget deficit, his administration's underestimation of the complexities of rebuilding Iraq, and a rebuff from major allies unwilling to send peacekeepers or help foot the costs.

At week's end, administration officials said they were considering reversing course and asking for a U.N.-sponsored force for Iraq, so long as it could be headed by a U.S. commander.

Not too long ago, Bush seemed all but invulnerable to criticism for his post-Sept. 11 handling of foreign policy and national security. But that may be changing.

''He's learning what so many other presidents have learned: Rarely does foreign policy help you, but it sure can hurt a lot when it goes sour,'' said Allan J. Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University.

Lichtman recalled President Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam War-driven decision not to seek re-election in 1968, and President Jimmy Carter's loss of prestige in 1980 because of the U.S. hostages held in Iran.

Bush's predicament is not nearly so serious, Lichtman said. ''But the political tide can change quickly.''

An August-recess congressional trip to Iraq didn't help the president, as senior senators from both parties returned sounding alarms over the deteriorating situation and citing a pressing need for more troops and more cash.

Major domestic problems also await Bush's return.

Despite some new signs of an improving economy, August saw the nation's worst power blackout, a sharp spike in gasoline prices, continued high unemployment and a Congressional Budget Office projection of a $480 billion deficit next year and a budget in the red for most of the next 10 years.

''The president is taking us into a deep, dark hole of deficits and debt that will take the nation many generations to recover from,'' said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., as Democrats stepped up criticism of Bush's handling of the economy.

With 15 months to go to the presidential election, polls show voters are far more concerned about the economy than Iraq or terrorism. And while support for Bush on Iraq has stabilized since a drop earlier in the summer, polls also show growing public alarm over postwar developments.

Bush also faces several pitched battles in Congress, including an unexpected one over the announcement by his Veterans Affairs Department that it would close seven VA hospitals and change the services provided at dozens of others.

The plan is drawing fierce opposition from lawmakers of both parties and from veterans, a key Bush constituency.

The president also must work with Congress on legislation to address weaknesses in the nation's power grid, dramatically emphasized by this month's massive Northeast blackout. And both Bush and lawmakers are under increasing pressure to wrap up work on a compromise Medicare overhaul, including a $400-billion-plus prescription drug benefit.

The president and his top advisers, trying to regain control of the agenda and respond to Iraq criticism, changed tack last week and began emphasizing the ongoing conflict as central to the broader U.S. campaign against terrorism.

Terrorists are being confronted in Iraq and Afghanistan ''so our people will not have to confront terrorist violence in New York or St. Louis or Los Angeles,'' Bush told an American Legion convention last week.

His national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, told another veterans group: ''We must remain patient. When Americans begin a noble cause, we finish it.''

One influential Bush adviser, GOP strategist Scott Reed, suggested that much of the August criticism of Bush's Iraq policy will blow away like a summer storm. And he said the political importance of an improving economy should not be underestimated.

''And the secret to all this is for the Bush White House to get back on the offensive on their issues,'' Reed said, citing the war on terrorism and Bush's economic stimulus program.

''August is always a tough month for presidents,'' Reed said.

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.



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