When Operation Desert Storm ended with a crushing defeat of Iraqi forces in early 1991, many pundits opined that President George Herbert Walker Bush was assured of re-election. Military success had made the President so popular that it was hard to see what could derail his re-election bid. But Bush’s popularity declined rapidly after Desert Storm, and in 2002 he lost the White House to Bill Clinton in an election that had little to do with national security.
Today, the former President’s son seems to be on the opposite political trajectory, at least as far as national security is concerned. Having been given up for dead by many members of his own party due to military reverses in Iraq, President George W. Bush’s political standing is reviving as his security policies produce a string of successes. National media have barely begun to notice this reversal of fortunes, but it is calling into question the ability of Democrats to reclaim the White House next year:
— In August, casualty figures confirmed a major decline in violence was under way in Iraq, at least partly due to a surge of U.S. forces that had been opposed by Democrats. U.S. commanders reported that Sunni tribal leaders were making common cause with American troops to defeat foreign terrorists, while Shiite militias formed in large part to combat the terrorist threat were refraining from sectarian attacks.
— In September, the Israeli air force destroyed a Syrian facility implicated in the development of nuclear weapons, following consultations with the Pentagon earlier in the summer that led to U.S. intelligence support of the attack. Meanwhile, the administration has conducted a behind-the-scenes dialogue with the regime of Bashar al-Assad that resulted in the elimination of Syrian support for foreign fighters in Iraq.
— In October, the government of North Korea agreed to abandon its own nuclear weapons program in return for economic aid and a normalization of relations. Kim Jong-il, the leader of North Korea, repeated that commitment in a message to President Bush last week; combined with Israel’s destruction of the North Korean-supplied facility in Syria, the warming of relations signals a marked decline in the threat posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear activities.
— In November, the U.S. intelligence community finished a National Intelligence Estimate finding that Iran drastically scaled back its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Indications are ambiguous — uranium enrichment continues — but it seems clear that the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq and efforts to impose economic sanctions led Teheran to rethink its nuclear ambitions (Libya gave up its nuclear program in 2003, too).
If that doesn’t sound like major progress to you, then maybe your standards aren’t realistic. Al Qaeda is a spent force in Iraq, and is retreating to the Horn of Africa. Syria has ceased supporting foreign fighters in Iraq. The Saudis are cracking down on supporters of Islamic terrorists in their own country. Iran is isolated. President Musharraf of Pakistan is ending his destabilizing state of emergency, in no small part because of pressure from the White House. The government of Iraq may still be riven with sectarian factionalism, but Saddam is gone, his weapons have all been rounded up, and the Iraqi military is starting to look like a real fighting force. So if the Democrats were counting on a discredited Republican security agenda to hand them the White House in 2008, they’d better start praying for a recession.
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