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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Sheesh 

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``The only thing remarkable about the current war in Iraq is how precipitously American public support has dropped off,
'' argues Ohio State political scientist John Mueller, in an important new article in Foreign Affairs.

``Casualty for casualty, support has declined far more quickly than it did during either the Korean War or the Vietnam War. And if history is any indication, there is little the Bush administration can do to reverse this decline,'' concludes Mueller, an expert on war and public opinion.

The Bush administration inner circle believed that conquering Iraq would be the death, finally, of ``the Vietnam syndrome,'' the fear of foreign entanglement that crippled the use of American power. It is darkly ironic then that the war has given birth to what Mueller calls ``the Iraq syndrome.'' Potential support for a fresh front, whether it is in Iran, Syria or North Korea, is disappearing rapidly.

``In part because of the military and financial overextension in Iraq (and Afghanistan), the likelihood of any coherent application of military power or even of a focused military threat against the remaining entities on the Bush administration's once-extensive hit list has substantially diminished,'' writes Mueller.

Those foes are all too well aware of the Iraq syndrome. Iran and North Korea's defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons is clearly prompted by their sense of the post-Iraq limits on American power. The administration tries to clothe its sense of weakness by trumpeting its new belief in the virtues of diplomacy -- but that new faith rings a bit hollow.

The Iraq syndrome rests on the growing perception in this country that Iraq is a war with even less purpose and less at stake than the previous unpopular wars in Korea and Vietnam. That skepticism has been fed by the administration's string of changing reasons for the war.


The threat that initially sold the war -- weapons of mass destruction, potentially in the hands of terrorists -- proved false. The lingering support for the war rests mainly on the administration's persistent claim that Iraq is part of the response to Sept. 11. Increasingly, however, Americans see Iraq as more a spur to terror than a front on which to defeat it.

What is left is the administration's justification that this is a war to end tyranny and bring democracy to Iraq. However appealing, there is no evidence that the American people, if they had been asked, would give the lives of their sons and daughters for that cause.

The administration clings to the belief that good news -- such as the constitutional vote -- will eventually swing opinion back in their favor. It could slow the decline in support but it is unlikely to change people's minds, says Mueller. No string of good news, he says, could conceivably yield a clear-cut victory.

Seeking to rally support, the administration falls back on its final argument -- that retreat will only embolden the enemy and leave an even worse situation behind. As in Vietnam, there is a counterargument that withdrawal may have little impact on the outcome. The Iraqi authorities in any case may eventually conclude that the American presence does more to fuel the insurgency than contain it. For an American public weary of the daily toll, the case for withdrawal becomes increasingly compelling.

In the end, Iraq did not reverse decades of retreat and appeasement. Rather, it has sapped American will, becoming a graveyard of American power measured by the daily list of American dead.

DANIEL SNEIDER, foreign-affairs columnist for the Mercury News, is a Pantech fellow at Stanford's Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center. He can be reached at dsneider@stanford.edu.


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