Attacks could build Bush's support

Fallout: The president can expect a short-term increase in his domestic ratings but little change in partisan divisions over his leadership, policies.


Bombings In London

July 08, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - For President Bush, who has made fighting terrorism a driving focus of his presidency, the London bombings were a brutal illustration of his frequent admonition that "the war on terror goes on."

But the attacks in Britain, the closest U.S. ally, also pointed up a harsh reality for Bush: that four years after 9/11 and his declaration of war on terrorism, Western democracies remain vulnerable to incidents on their own soil.

Analysts said the latest incident could help Bush regain domestic support for the war in Iraq, which he argues is critical to preventing attacks in the United States. Yesterday's attacks, they said, could rekindle the sense of outraged solidarity that spread throughout the United States - and much of the world - immediately after Sept. 11.

Home front at risk

But the bombings could also raise questions about whether Bush's focus on Iraq, which he calls "the central front in the war on terror," is leaving the home front at risk.

"If this is perceived as `He can't protect us at home,' then it will be a political black mark for Bush," said Gideon Rose of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Others will simply perceive it as `There are bad guys out there who still want to harm us and kill us, and so we need a leader who is forceful and resolute,' and that's Bush."

As news of the casualties in London spread, Bush delivered a somber and resolute statement that sought to express sympathy for the victims, reassure Americans that he was focused on their safety, and stoke feelings of outrage at the attack.

Bush offered "heartfelt condolences" to Londoners, praised British Prime Minister Tony Blair for his "steadfast determination and his strength" and said he had ordered U.S. authorities to be "extra vigilant."

The president, who has sought to highlight points of agreement with U.S. allies at this week's summit of industrialized nations in Scotland, suggested the London attacks had done just that. Bush, speaking to reporters at the Gleneagles resort, said he was "impressed with the resolve of all the leaders," adding that it was "as strong as my resolve."

Their common commitment, Bush said, is not to "yield to the terrorists."

"We will find them," he said, "we will bring them to justice, and at the same time, we will spread an ideology of hope and compassion that will overwhelm their ideology of hate."

The theme is one Bush is comfortable sounding on a subject that highlights his strengths as a leader.

"This confirms his argument about the seriousness of the threat and the nature of the enemy," Rose said. "By making it clear that this is a problem - the problem - it plays to Bush's advantage."

But the events carried potential liabilities for Bush as well, analysts said.

"Any sort of terrorist attack with a plausible link to al-Qaida is a reminder that that work isn't finished, and that Osama bin Laden is still out there," said Paul Freedman, a University of Virginia political scientist.

With support for the war in Iraq falling in public opinion polls, Freedman said, "One risk here is that this is a reminder that we've been focusing our energy and attention and resources in Iraq, and that there is unfinished business facing the world, and potentially facing America."

At least one Democrat pointed to the London bombings as evidence that the Bush administration had painted too rosy of a picture of the situation in Iraq.

"Today's tragic events in London show us that, contrary to what the American people have been told, al-Qaida is not on its last legs," Paul Hackett, a former Marine running for Congress in Ohio, said in a statement. He was alluding to Vice President Dick Cheney's recent statement that the Iraqi insurgency is in its "last throes."

David Sirota, a Democratic activist, circulated an e-mail message arguing that the tragedy in London debunks Bush's assertion - most recently made in a nationally televised speech from a military base last week - that U.S. troops are fighting insurgents in Iraq "to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home."

"The awful bombing in London today shows just how silly, dangerous, short-sighted, and truly dishonest this line of reasoning really is," Sirota wrote.

Still, many of the same Democrats who excoriated Bush last week for tying the war in Iraq to Sept. 11 reacted to yesterday's events with expressions of strong support for fighting terrorism and solidarity with the president.

That might be a sign that the London attacks have made it more difficult for Democrats to object to Bush's linking terrorism and Iraq, at least in the short run. The strikes could undercut Bush's strategy, however, by showing that al-Qaida elements can still terrorize people around the world, even as U.S. troops fight them in Iraq.

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