WASHINGTON Failure so far to find banned weapons in Iraq is the latest in a lengthening series of setbacks for President Bush. It could increase public skepticism of his leadership a decline already reflected in polls and give Democrats new ammunition to claim the rush to war was a mistake.
The interim report by the CIA's David Kay, the chief U.S. weapons inspector, was more bad news for a White House already reeling from a three-day-old Justice Department probe into whether it leaked the name of a CIA agent, from criticism on Capitol Hill of its request for $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan and from a rebuff at the United Nations to its plea for financial and military help.
With costs and attacks on American soldiers climbing, Bush has found his job approval numbers falling to the lowest of his presidency, at or below 50 percent in some recent polls.
A CBS-New York Times poll released Thursday night found that just 45 percent of Americans now have confidence in Bush's ability to deal wisely with an international crisis, down from 66 percent in April.
In the same poll, three-quarters, including a majority of Republicans, said the administration had yet to clearly explain how long U.S. troops would have to stay in Iraq and how much it would cost. Six in 10 said the United States should not spend the $87 billion.
Fred Greenstein, a political science professor at Princeton University, said the failure to find weapons of mass destruction was initially angering ''people who are already very hostile toward Bush.''
Greenstein suggested that additional American casualties and longer tours of duty for U.S. troops would have a more profound impact on Bush's re-election chances than arguments over weapons capabilities.
''Where Bush is vulnerable is among people who were for him and are now becoming disillusioned,'' Greenstein said.
Kay reported to Congress that his team of 1,200 weapons hunters found no evidence that Iraq was actively making weapons of mass destruction in recent years. At the same time, he said there were indications that Saddam Hussein intended to develop such weapons and was retaining the ability to resume production.
Bush seized on the second part, telling reporters that it demonstrated Saddam ''was a danger.''
''This interim progress report is not final,'' Bush added.
But if nothing else, Kay's inability to find such weapons in three months of searching will make it even harder for the administration to continue to insist that Saddam was an imminent threat the core argument the White House had made last winter for going to war.
And that could further erode public confidence in his handling of foreign policy, which has been seen as his greatest strength.
While Bush brushed off the lack so far of weapons of mass destruction and defended anew his decision to attack Iraq, Democrats used the Kay report to step up accusations that the president and his aides misled the public on Saddam's capabilities.
''There is no evidence that he had those capabilities,'' Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Com-mittee, said Friday after being briefed by Kay.
In a March 17 address to the nation, Bush said intelligence ''gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.''
Vice President Dick Cheney told NBC's meet the Press a day earlier, ''We believe he (Saddam) has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.''
Kay's report confirmed what had long been suspected, said John Isaacs, president of the Council for a Livable World, an arms-control advocacy group. ''The threat from Saddam was at best overstated, at worst manufactured,'' he said.
But Robert Einhorn, former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, said it was important to reserve judgment until Kay's group finished its work.
''I'm surprised that nothing's been found so far. But this is a country that's put a lot of time and effort into concealment. You have to let the clock run a little longer before drawing any bottom lines,'' Einhorn said.
Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.
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