Sometimes, no matter how much money and spin a candidate has to manipulate a political impression, there is a simple, common-sense underlying truth that cannot be changed.
Unfortunately for President Bush, that is happening with Iraq. Bush gambled on the basic proposition that he could make positive progress in the war on terrorism by invading Iraq. The evidence coming in day after day is that the war in Iraq has made the war against terrorism more difficult, not less. And it doesn't take a foreign-policy expert to figure that out.
Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney can argue all they want that there was a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida going back to before Sept. 11. But this much is not in dispute and the American people know it: Al-Qaida is operating big-time now in Iraq, and the American invasion of Iraq has inspired more people to go over to its cause than ever.
The Bush administration can claim all it wants that there are a lot of good things happening now in Iraq and that if they did make a major mistake, it was in not anticipating that the insurgency would be as strong as it is. That's what Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told Congress Tuesday. Overall, he said, the United States is on the right track and things will work out eventually.
We should all be so fortunate. But there are too many other reports coming out now that put the Iraq gamble in a different light. The New York Times wrote this week about a new book by a senior intelligence official with responsibility for al-Qaida arguing that the invasion of Iraq has only played into the enemy's hands. The author denounced the invasion as "an avaricious, premeditated unprovoked war against a foe who posed no immediate threat," and said it would fuel the anti-American sentiments on which Osama bin Laden and his followers draw. "There is nothing that bin Laden could have hoped for more than the American invasion and occupation of Iraq."
Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., disputed Wolfowitz's assessment of progress in the hearing Tuesday, saying, "The four pillars of this plan were establishing security, restoring essential services, creating conditions for economic development, and enabling the transition to democratic governance. It's clear that these goals have not been achieved, at least not to the extent we had hoped, largely because we haven't established security."
Earlier this week the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace released an alarming report, saying that the administration was not doing enough to contain and control nuclear weapons and weapons-grade material. Indeed, the administration seems to have been so preoccupied with the Iraq effort that the effort to find and control the so-called loose nukes had been put on a back burner.
Also, Iran has been emboldened in its pursuit of nuclear weapons in recent months, after it became clear the U.S. effort in Iraq was, at best, bogged down. And, according to an article in the current issue of The New Yorker, the Israelis have already concluded Iraq will not hold together and are aiding the Kurds in their effort to be autonomous.
For the average American voter who might not follow all these events closely, there is a gestalt impression: Bush was wrong about Iraq. The most recent polls showing his job approval ratings down tend to confirm this. It is particularly dangerous for a president who was brought into office in a controversial election, having lost the popular vote.
Bush still has tens of millions of dollars for campaign commercials to try to change the impression. It might not be money well-spent. Jimmy Carter's was seen as a failed presidency months before the election and, while the polls continued to show a close election, he lost in a landslide. A lot will happen between now and Election Day. But I wouldn't want to be in Bush's position.