As new details emerged Friday about President Bush’s secretive Thanksgiving Day visit to U.S. troops in Baghdad, a senior White House official defended the trip, saying the president simply was performing his duties as a wartime commander.
“This trip was an effort by the commander in chief on Thanksgiving Day to take to the American forces ... the best wishes of the American people, to thank them for their service, to tell them that he and the American people are personally committed to seeing and staying the course here, to take a message to the Iraqi people that this is their opportunity to seize the moment for freedom,” national security advisor Condoleezza Rice said.
Bush, Rice and a few aides left the president’s 1,600-acre ranch here late Wednesday afternoon and drove for 45 minutes in an unmarked car to a private airport in Waco, with baseball caps pulled low over their eyes.
Not even the Secret Service agents who staff the guard posts on the ranch knew Bush had left. They manned their outdoor stations throughout the night, thinking they were ensuring the safety of “the protectee,” in agency parlance.
The crew of Marine One, the presidential helicopter, was similarly in the dark. At one point Wednesday night, long after Bush had departed, according to one White House aide, the flight personnel carried out a routine revving up of the helicopter, per standard procedure.
“Almost no one knew, because operational security was absolutely critical here,” Rice said Friday.
Bush’s visit came at a difficult time in the Iraq war and reconstruction, with U.S. personnel coming under regular, and often fatal, attack. There are also mounting questions about why the president has not attended funerals for soldiers killed in combat.
His visit clearly lifted the spirits of the 600 soldiers he addressed Thursday; he mingled with the troops and helped serve meals. At home, the trip drew praise, and even grudging admiration from some Democrats vying to run against him next year.
But questions surfaced nevertheless about Bush’s political motivations in making the risky trip to Baghdad, where just days ago a DHL cargo plane was struck in one wing by a surface-to-air missile during a landing approach at the same airport.
The trip also evoked memories of his May 1 landing on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and his speech proclaiming an end to major combat in Iraq -- with a premature “Mission Accomplished” banner in the background.
But Rice, who appeared on five morning television talk shows Friday, rejected all suggestions that the Baghdad trip had any political overtones.
“Let the chips fall where they may,” she said. “But for the American people, I don’t care what your party, they know that the president of the United States, as commander in chief, going to see these troops is an important step.”
Bush returned to his ranch shortly before dawn Friday and spent the rest of the day resting and visiting with his extended family, including his parents, former President Bush and Barbara Bush, who arrived at the ranch Thursday morning only to learn that their son had gone to Iraq.
Officials said the president planned to stay at the ranch until returning to Washington on Sunday.
“He really is going to be in Crawford this weekend,” Rice said.