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Mideast events lifting world's view of Bush

Social Security weighs at home

WASHINGTON -- A growing sense of optimism about democracy in the Middle East is boosting President Bush's standing in the world and dampening domestic criticism of his policies in the region.

The good news abroad has yet to register in the president's approval ratings, which are weighted down by concerns about his plan to privatize part of Social Security.

But the White House has sought to get political credit for the positive developments overseas, with Bush linking the Iraqi elections, renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks, and burgeoning democracy protests in Lebanon to his policies, including the decision to go to war in Iraq.

''The chances of democratic progress in the broader Middle East seemed frozen in place for decades," Bush declared last week at the National Defense University in Washington. ''Yet at last, clearly and suddenly, the thaw has begun."

Many critics of Bush's foreign policies are toning down. In stark contrast to even a month ago, when they were hammering at Bush's Iraq policies almost every day, House Democrats yesterday offered mostly narrow criticisms of the war's prosecution while debating Bush's $81.3 billion funding request, which is expected to pass easily.

European nations have cheered the developments across the Middle East, which include pledges of political change from nondemocratic rulers in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The news has prompted a flurry of reassessments of Bush's policies, most dramatically in an article in the liberal German magazine Der Spiegel that suggested Bush may be right about toppling Saddam Hussein as the first step in spreading democracy through the Middle East. The article compares the president's hard-line policies to President Reagan's stand against communism in the 1980s, a stance that was also unpopular in Europe until the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

But in the United States, Bush's assertions of foreign-policy success have been offset by the debate over Social Security changes -- an escalating battle that Democrats contend they are winning. Both sides are campaigning hard, with the leaders of the Democratic minorities in the House and Senate stepping up their defense of the current system.

The most recent poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, released early this month, indicated growing optimism about Iraq, but Bush's overall approval at a relatively low 46 percent. The president's approval rating on Social Security was 29 percent, a strikingly low figure.

''A 29 percent-approval rating on Social Security can outweigh even good news on Iraq," said Andrew Kohut, president of the research center.

Pointing to the democracy movements among Palestinians, Lebanese, and others in the Middle East, Kohut said: ''These are good things, and all these things could help the president and the GOP. But right here, in the last month or so, the focus has been on Social Security, which is not a plus for them."

White House communications director Nicolle Devenish said in an interview that the president will use his forthcoming events on Social Security to ''define the problem" and will campaign more heavily for his solutions, including private investment accounts, at later times.

''I think when we turn the focus to talking about solutions, some of these [poll] numbers will be more relevant," she said.

Meanwhile, Bush is clearly encouraged by Middle East-related events over the past few weeks, including his meeting yesterday with King Abdullah II of Jordan, after which Bush spoke of his belief that ''peace is within hand" between the Israelis and Palestinians.

''The president is inspired by the actions of the Iraqis who went out to vote and the thousands who are protesting in Lebanon," Devenish said. ''But he certainly has a long view and understands that democracy takes its time and winds its way through these places."

In speeches, Bush has suggested it is no accident that democracy movements are emerging in the Middle East at a time when he has put unusual emphasis on promoting democracy.

The president's supporters say his willingness to go to war in Iraq despite international opposition, his demands for Syria to leave Lebanon, and his refusal to push hard for Mideast peace talks until new Palestinian leadership emerged sent strong signals to authoritarian regimes in the region that it is time to open up their political systems.

Democrats differ on how much credit to give Bush's hard-line policies for the Mideast developments.

Representative Rick Larsen, Democrat of Washington, said that the hopeful signs in the region are still just ''small steps forward" and that the administration's conduct could be crucial in determining the direction from now on. Still, with the Middle East in a time of cautious optimism, Democrats are modifying their criticisms to focus on the prosecution of the war against the Iraqi insurgency, such as the pace of training for Iraqi forces and the adequacy of US troops levels, instead of Bush's rationales for the invasion, Larsen said.

''The debate about whether or not we should be there has passed," said Larsen, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. ''The debate now has to be about the success strategy and how we get out."

Representative Robert E. Andrews, a New Jersey Democrat, went a little further, saying members of his party acknowledge that Bush deserves some credit for the trend toward democracy in the Middle East, since his decision to topple Hussein made the climate for such movement possible.

''Looking at the Middle East today versus where it was two years ago, prospects for a stable, market-based, tyrant-free region are better," Andrews said. ''I don't see any set of circumstances where that's not good for the United States."

But some Bush critics maintain that the president's policies did not precipitate the current rush of events in the Middle East.

Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration who is a fellow at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, attributes recent optimism about the Middle East primarily to two events: the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, which created the opportunity for new leadership, and the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, which provoked outrage against the Syrian occupation.

Neither is in any way related to Bush's policies, Korb said.

''Arafat dying was more important than Iraq," said Korb, contending that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains the defining issue for the region. ''I don't think the Palestinian elections had anything to do with invading Iraq."

Korb also suggested that progress could evaporate quickly and that the success of democracy in Iraq remains in doubt, as well as effects to stem Iran's nuclear ambitions.

''You could have, in five years, an Iraq allied with Iran," said Korb. ''You could have an Iran with nuclear weapons."

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