When George W. Bush spoke to the nation last week -- the first of several weekly addresses promised up through June 30, when U.S.-led forces will turn over authority to an interim Iraq government -- most polls showed Americans split about evenly between him and John Kerry. This, despite more than two months during which the adversarial media have overplayed stories that seemed likely to hurt Bush -- the Richard Clarke testimony and the Abu Ghraib prison abuse -- and underplayed stories that seemed likely to help him -- the U.N. oil-for-food scandal, the presence of the nerve gas sarin in an attack on U.S. troops in northern Iraq, the murder of Nicholas Berg.
But even fair coverage would convey at least some impression of turmoil in Iraq. Although most of the country is peaceful and the economy is surging, armed attacks against Americans and Iraqis are still frequent; oil pipelines are still subject to sabotage.
This, clearly, is not how we wanted the occupation to look at this point. But it is also no time for panic. If things could be better, they could also be very much worse. Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, say some in a position to know, are regarding events calmly. They have seen worse.
Nearly 30 years ago, they held high offices in Gerald Ford's White House, when Americans were forced to evacuate South Vietnam by helicopter, when inflation and unemployment were higher than today, when the president's job-approval ratings were far lower than George W. Bush's, and when Democrats held overwhelming margins in both houses of Congress. Yet if Ford had won 18,490 more votes in Ohio and Hawaii in 1976, he would have stayed in the White House.
It seems clear that, however much the violence continues, power will be turned over to an Iraqi interim government June 30. Those who argue that that government won't have full authority so long as U.S. troops remain or that the United States will have very limited leverage forget the precedent of post-World War II Italy. There was a continuous Italian government then, under a king, until Italians chose a republic, in a 1946 referendum. But the Americans continued to exert influence there until the Italians chose the pro-democratic Christian Democrats over the pro-totalitarian Communists, in 1948.