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Monday, March 17

Analysis - Bush's war ultimatum puts presidential legacy on the line

By Chuck Raasch

Updated 9:40 p.m.

WASHINGTON - With months of intense diplomacy having failed and years of simmering confrontation suddenly coming to a climax, President Bush has signaled to a divided world that a war with Iraq could begin within hours.

In a prime-time speech Monday night, a terse and grim-faced Bush said that the United States would lead a military force to remove Saddam Hussein from power after giving Saddam and his sons 48 hours to leave the country.

``We are now acting because the risks of inaction would be greater,'' Bush said.

He portrayed Saddam as a threat to the world and said the U.S. would be acting on the world's behalf. But a trio of key allies, led by France and including Germany and Russia, sees war as premature and risky.

``It is possible to disarm Iraq by peaceful means,'' Jean-Marc de La Sabliere, the French ambassador to the U.N., said Monday.

But Bush and his national security advisers have increasingly sought to portray the French as wanting to appease Saddam. Bush homed in on that theme Monday night, saying the United States is leading a coalition to uphold the objectives of the United Nations.

``These governments share our assessments of the danger, but not our resolve to meet it,'' Bush said, referring to France and other doubting nations in the United Nations Security Council.

Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush used the rhetoric of frontier Texas when he declared al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden ``Wanted: Dead or Alive.'' In giving Saddam and his sons 48 hours to get out of Baghdad, the rhetoric again sounded as if it emanated from the American West.

It is a rhetorical image that has caused Bush's critics to dub him a ``cowboy'' and his defenders to view him as decisive and proactive.

The United States is rolling toward war with Iraq during a momentous split in global public opinion, with support solidifying at home but opposition growing abroad.

Post-World War II alliances have frayed as President Bush unsuccessfully pressed for a use-of-force ultimatum against Iraq in the United Nations. And as anti-war demonstrations have grown around the globe, U.S. public opinion has changed dramatically in just a month toward long-term allies like France and Germany, and post-Cold War partner Russia.

In the vortex of this volatile mix is Bush, whose presidential legacy will be heavily defined by the length and success of war in Iraq and, equally as important, its aftermath.

But history defies the claims of those who declare this a make-or-break moment for Bush's presidency. Bush's own father drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait 12 years ago, but lost re-election 20 months later.

``I think in his own family he has dramatic evidence that you can prosecute a war very successfully and that you can be drummed out of office months later because the economy has hit the skids,'' said University of Texas political scientist Roderick Hart. He has written extensively on presidential decision-making.

Bush is still on decent public opinion footing at home, with support for an invasion of Iraq at its highest level than any time since November 2001, according to a USA Today-CNN-Gallup poll taken over the weekend. But his decision to confront Saddam militarily with or without U.N. consensus has inflamed global public opinion against the United States and soured relations with Congress.

``I'm saddened that the president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we are forced to war,'' Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who voted last fall to use force, said Monday in a speech to a public employees union.

Republican National Committee Chairman Marc Racicot said Daschle's ``blame America first'' position was ``deceitful and shameful.''

The fallout from a war - diplomatically, strategically and politically - will heavily depend upon its length and cost, in human and economic terms.

``Obviously, there are several different scenarios about how the war goes, or how a combination of the war and the economy goes,'' said Republican pollster Ed Goeas. ``All the way from both going up together, or both going down together, to one going up and the other going down.''

The connection between war and economics played out vividly Monday. As the possibility of war grew, the U.S stock market rallied more than 3 percent, lending credence to those saying that uncertainty over Iraq has been the largest drag on the economy.

Goeas said he believed that Bush risked losing support at home if the U.N. standoff dragged on much longer.

``If anything, the risk he has run is to test the patience of the American public on the inevitable,'' Goeas said.

Both Goeas and Hart said they believed that Bush would not take into account public opinion overseas in finally deciding to oust Saddam. Hart said the United States' position as the globe's prime superpower was far more relevant to Bush.

``Whether or not (going to war without U.N. sanction) creates road blocks to trade or diplomatic issues down the road is a very serious question, but politics is the art of negotiation and constant re-negotiation,'' Hart said. ``They say it is nice to make friends in politics, it is death to make enemies. I don't think anyone can afford to make enemies of the United States for very long.''

But Bush's biggest ally - British Prime Minister Tony Blair - is recoiling. The British public opposes war by 2-1 in recent polls, and a leading cabinet member resigned Monday in protest.

(Contributing: Jon Frandsen, GNS.)