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Perilous Times

President Bush's re-election campaign has a certain Perils of Pauline aspect. Just as the job-creation situation showed signs of improving, Iraq suddenly turned worse. A month or two from now, we could see things in Iraq get better but see the jobs situation turn south again.

For now, Iraq seems to be Bush's bigger problem. Since mid-March, we've seen the casualty rate and the atrocities committed against Americans and our allies increase dramatically. As horrendous as the desecration of the bodies of the four American contractors in Falluja was, the death of a coalition soldier from El Salvador, whom the Iraqi resistance reportedly killed by putting a live hand grenade in his mouth, was perhaps even more horrible.

At this point, polls show that most Americans still basically back the war but have real misgivings about how it's being conducted. The April 1-4 national survey of 790 adults by Princeton Survey Research for the Pew Research Center indicated that 57 percent of Americans still think that the "U.S. made the right decision" in using military force against Iraq. Those results are consistent with three earlier Pew polls taken since early February.

As of the April 1-4 survey, which came after the murders in Falluja, most Americans still thought that the U.S. military effort in Iraq was going well -- 14 percent said "very well," 43 percent said "fairly well," 26 percent said "not too well," and 13 percent said "not at all well." The optimists were 57 percent of the total, the same percentage as those who thought going to war was the "right decision." The obvious question is whether U.S. support for the war will drop if news remains bad.

Already, the Pew poll is finding widespread dissatisfaction. Although 50 percent of Americans say the "U.S. should keep military troops in Iraq until a stable government is established there," that level of support is down from the 63 percent of early January. Now, 44 percent say the troops should come home "as soon as possible." That's up from 32 percent in January.

Asked whether "Bush has a clear plan for bringing the situation in Iraq to a successful conclusion," only 32 percent said yes, down from 44 percent in December. Fifty-seven percent say Bush does not have a clear plan, up from 45 percent.

And asked "Which concerns you more, that the U.S. will leave Iraq before a stable democracy is in place, or that the U.S. will wait too long to withdraw its troops from Iraq," only 36 percent worried that the troops will be withdrawn before the job is done. But 52 percent were concerned that the United States will wait too long.

Experts on foreign policy and intelligence express grave concern that if the June 30 handover of control to the Iraqis by the U.S.-led coalition takes place on schedule, the United States could find itself in the middle of a religious civil war among the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. The experts also worry that even if a civil war doesn't happen, a unified Iraqi uprising against the United States and the coalition is possible, and the United States and Bush may well be in a no-win situation.

In this murky situation, two things are clear. First, there will be a presidential election in the United States on November 2 -- probably a very, very close one. Second, the situation in Iraq is not improving; the charge that "things are really better than the media are portraying them" has become laughable.

The moment of truth for Bush will come this fall, when MoveOn.org and the other 527s supporting presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry launch a wave of advertising that replays tapes of the 2002 and early-2003 claims by Bush, Vice President Cheney, and other leading administration officials who pushed the country into war. Many of their justifications don't really stand up today.

Because Sen. Kerry voted to authorize Bush to use force against Iraq, he is in no real position to question having gone to war. "Independent" groups will certainly do the job for him, and it's not likely to be a pretty sight. One big unknown is what will happen in Iraq in the meantime. If we knew that, we'd likely have a good idea about how receptive the American public will be to charges that Bush led the country astray.

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