It had been a grueling day for George Bush. He stood side by side with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the White House, defending their rationale for going into Iraq--just as they had done so urgently last fall. Only this time they were trying to justify why it did not turn out quite as they had predicted. Bush headed to Texas that evening, and he took with him on Air Force One half a dozen House members from Texas, inviting them to join him at the front of the plane. A visit that was supposed to last 15 minutes stretched into an hour and a half. With his dogs wandering the cabin and White House chief of staff Andrew Card taking notes, Bush listened as his visitors explained how Americans beyond the capital were digesting the events in Iraq. They talked, recalled Representative Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, about "how it's very easy to get support for a pure military operation, but it's a lot more difficult when you're peacekeeping and rooting out the terrorists." This seemed to confirm what the President had privately been telling his staff for days. He had had it with the second-guessing, the postwar revisionists, the nitpicking over a single sentence that he had uttered six months earlier. Bush has been arguing that it is time to go on the offensive, or people will forget why America went to Iraq in the first place.
Like the M1 Abrams tank that performed so well in Iraq, Bush does best when moving forward. But he was facing guerrilla attacks last week on both his reasoning for going to war and lack of preparation for the peace. "He is tired of the weed whacking and the process stories," a senior official said of the President. But Bush's problem is bigger than weed whacking. In the latest TIME/CNN poll, Bush's job-approval rating has dropped to 55%, where it stood before 9/11--just barely above his low of 53% in January during the anguished national debate about whether to go to war in the first place. Bush's advisers knew all along that his postwar poll numbers could not hold, but as it has happened, the effect has been to force the President--and the nation--into a kind of moral time warp: six months after Bush addressed the nation and argued for war and three months after he declared major combat operations ended, he was making the case all over again.
Americans' uncertainties about Iraq go far beyond the question of whether Bush used shaky intelligence in his State of the Union address last January. What bothers people is what they see happening day after day on the ground: their military men and women under siege, a casualty count that exceeds the toll of the first Gulf War, anti-Americanism in a land where they had been told our forces would be greeted like heroes, costs reaching a billion dollars a week and going up, some troops homesick and disillusioned, their spouses and parents having no idea when they will see their loved ones again--and no end in sight to any of it. At a gate to a 3rd Infantry Division base near Fallujah last week, Sergeant Michael Baroni sat on a tank and dreamed of drinking a glass of fresh milk. After 10 months in the Middle East, he says, "I just want to get out of this country, which, by the way, the Iraqis can have."