After trip, a tough road for Bush

GOP to relinquish power as president faces Iraq questions

November 22, 2006|By Mark Silva | Mark Silva,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

HONOLULU -- The young airman who escorted reporters from Hickam Air Force Base said his wife, in particular, was excited to see President Bush touch down with Air Force One.

"She's from Texas," he explained. "It's like seeing a rock star."

The president isn't much of a rock star in the States these days, with his public approval ratings near an all-time low, his party preparing to relinquish control of Congress in January and his administration facing fateful questions about the course of the war in Iraq.

It seems that Bush has more friends abroad, at least among the foreign leaders with whom he huddled during his seven-day, round-the-world tour completed yesterday. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who had invited Bush to stop in Moscow en route to Asia for a reception in the airport "VIP lounge," carried something special to their subsequent conference in Hanoi: a birthday present for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Back home, the latest Gallup Poll shows, only one-third of Americans surveyed approve of the job Bush is doing as he returns to Washington.

The going could get much rougher for Bush in the weeks and months ahead. So there was a certain pleasure in visits like his last stop here, where he spent the night as a guest of the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific and shared breakfast with troops on the base.

Two signs mark diverging roads off the air base: To the right, Honolulu; to the left, Pearl Harbor.

Here, in the remote islands where the U.S. military suffered its worst modern failure of intelligence, Bush could not help but ponder the course for a war in Iraq launched with gravely flawed U.S. intelligence.

As he returned from an admittedly "poignant" voyage to the old capitals of once-partitioned Vietnam, which the U.S. abandoned after nearly 60,000 of its own troops died there, Bush will return to a scenario in Washington not unlike, in some ways, the one that presidents faced in the waning years of the war in Vietnam.

Just as President Richard M. Nixon sought a winning strategy in what his defense secretary, Melvin R. Laird, called Vietnamization - transferring the role of the U.S. military to the army of South Vietnam - Bush has insisted that U.S. forces will "stand down" as Iraqi soldiers "stand up."

And just as President Lyndon Johnson assembled a cadre of Washington's "wise men" to advise him about the war at a time when the Pentagon was pressing him for more troops, Bush will return to a review that his own military leaders and national security and foreign policy advisers are conducting, at the same time that a bipartisan panel of "wise men" commissioned by Congress is reviewing U.S. strategy in Iraq.

As he traveled through Moscow, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia and to Honolulu on his way home, everyone was curious to see how the president, his power sharply curtailed by elections with two years remaining in his presidency, might comport himself.

"I'm sure there's some questions by the Australian press about what the elections mean," Bush said after a meeting in Vietnam with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, an ally in the war in Iraq. "The elections mean that the American people want to know whether or not we have a plan for success.

"Any repositioning of troops, if that's what we choose to do, will be done in close consultation" with allies, Bush said. "But I also assured him that we're not leaving until this job is done."

The president was certain to find an equally receptive audience here, at the U.S. Pacific Command.

"You serve at a time when we witness an ideological struggle between those who love freedom and those who hate freedom," Bush said at the base, honoring those who had died in Iraq. "You serve freedom's cause when you help others to be able to defend themselves. ... We resolve to honor their sacrifice by completing the missions for which they gave their lives."

It's returning home for Bush that will be the hard part.

Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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