Will Iraq Erode President Bush's Popularity?

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, November 3, 2003, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: The rising level of bloodshed is threatening to become a political liability for President Bush. Eroding support for extended military action and tarnishing his image perhaps. Historian David Greenberg is author of Nixon's Shadow, the history of an image. Today's big question: How does the president manage the steady drip, drip, drip of conflicts in Iraq?

DAVID GREENBERG, HISTORIAN: Well, I don't know if Nixon is really the best example for that. I mean, Nixon had four years of his first term where he wasn't able to get a hold of the Vietnam problem. For Bush, it really has to do with, first of all, getting a hold of a political situation, that is a political situation in Iraq. Second of all, making the United States seem less of a target, less of the sort of a goal for all manner of enemies of the United States to come after there in Baghdad and around it.

GIBSON: We're looking at the pictures of the president landing on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln (search) on May 1st and declaring major combat operations over. And some of the sailors, of course, on that ship that put up a big sign that said, "Mission Accomplished." Now, the president said major combat operations are over, and they are. But minor combat operations go on, and they are very deadly. How does he tell the American people that we are in for this for awhile, in a way that they don't blame him?

GREENBERG: I think minor becomes, you know, a harder and harder word to use after days like yesterday and today when so many American lives are being lost. What Bush really has to do is start changing the political situation on the ground, both in Iraq, as well as here. But I think once a president starts worrying about message, as a mask for his policy, he's already starting to get into trouble.

GIBSON: Right. But there is no indication he is doing that. He's still managing, trying to manage this situation. Here we had this absurd situation, the Arabs meeting in Syria and demanding that the United States control the security situation in Iraq. Please, you must improve the security situation. Syria's to blame, Saudis are in there. Here are those two-faced Arabs meeting in Syria demanding Bush do something about the problem they are causing. How can he get tagged with the blame for it when the people causing the problem are sitting out there on the sidelines as a jeering section?

GREENBERG: Well, there are two separate arenas where you have to be concerned about being tagged with it. One is in the Arab world, and in Europe and in the rest of world at large. The other is at home, here in America. So far, I think, yes, his support has been slipping. But there isn't the kind of mass domestic dissent that you saw in Vietnam. And I think we're a long ways before we get there. But what Bush has to avoid doing to prevent this turning into another Vietnam, several months or more likely years down the road, is what he has to do is basically make sure that the United States is not seen as the target here, the one responsible for the dangers that are going on in Iraq.

GIBSON: Look. There is no Ho Chi Minh here. Nobody is saying that Saddam Hussein, living wherever he is living and directing these people and their shoulder-fired missiles is Ho Chi Minh no. One is saying these people -- their shoulder-fired missiles -- these Ho Chi Minh. Nobody is saying these shoulder-fired missile people are a CIA-sponsored organization that is going to bring down the red army. Doesn't this appear to be a situation that is militarily and politically manageable in Iraq if you can get to those people?

GREENBERG: There is no question it is militarily manageable. There is no question that if the United States has the perseverance, they can withstand these military attacks, as painful as it is to be losing American lives over there. And there isn't any real indication right now that the American public is not willing to go along with that. But there does become a danger if there isn't sign of improvement that it starts to look like the American government doesn't have a sense of purpose, doesn't have a plan for extricating us from the political dangers as well as the military dangers.

GIBSON: OK. Now, but are you seeing yet that Bush is vulnerable to the obvious problems of this going on and being continually bloody?

GREENBERG: He is definitely vulnerable, yes.

GIBSON: Here is a poll that shows why people might think Bush is vulnerable. Iraq, 43 percent, the economy 31 percent. The economy obviously getting better as we heard last week. Iraq is obviously a big problem, especially if you have a mounting death toll.

GREENBERG: What you see in the public opinion polls, though, is it's soft. After there is a bad day, after a few days of bad news, support for Bush seems to go down. After things go well for a few days, it comes back up. The American people are still very unsure of where this war is going. And unless there is a clear sense of purpose, a clear sense of direction as to what our objectives are, what we are going to do ...

GIBSON: What could be more clear than we want to give this country back to Iraqis? We want the Iraqi army to take over security. We want the Iraqi police to take over security. We want the American troops to go down there. That's been stated and restated and stated again. How do you make that more clear than it's already been made?

GREENBERG: I don't think, for example, there is a clear sense of a timetable.

GIBSON: How would you know a timetable?

GREENBERG: I don't think the government has a timetable.

GIBSON: How would a government know the timetable?

GREENBERG: Well, they may not have grounds for coming out with one.

GIBSON: Is that a reasonable expectation?

GREENBERG: It may not be a reasonable one, but I do think that the public is much more tolerant of military interventions when there is a sense that it's finite, that it has a clear, and well-defined and relatively easily attainable purpose. That doesn't mean that this isn't an intervention that wasn't worth it, but it does mean that as each month progresses without a clear sense of ending the war, when it is going to happen, the dangers for Bush are going to escalate.

GIBSON: Historian David Greenberg, the author of Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

GREENBERG: Thank you.

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