Looking Past Means, Focusing on Ends in Iraq
For all the attention President Bush devoted to the war in Iraq at his news conference Tuesday night, his message boiled down to three words: Stay the course.
Faced with rising turmoil across Iraq, Bush repeatedly stressed his resolve to drive that troubled nation toward stability and democracy -- but offered no new plans on how to achieve those aims.
Long on goals and short on means, his performance left even some supporters wondering whether he had found a formula to reassure the growing number of Americans expressing doubt in polls about his course.
“I was depressed,” said conservative strategist William Kristol, one of the war’s most vocal proponents. “I am obviously a supporter of the war, so I don’t need to be convinced. But among people who were doubtful or worried, I don’t think he made arguments that would convince them. He didn’t explain how we are going to win there.”
Throughout the session with reporters, Bush gave no ground to his critics, either on the war or on his administration’s handling of the terrorist threat before Sept. 11, 2001. In his forceful answers, Bush repeatedly demonstrated the determination that his supporters find among his most appealing qualities.
The political risk he faces is that swing voters will view his refusal to reconsider his strategy as more dogmatic than determined.
“When he gets up there and digs in his heels and says the same things he has been saying all along with no give, no evidence of any kind of thoughtful flexibility, I think it undercuts him and adds to the doubts,” presidential historian Robert Dallek said.
Bush’s performance is unlikely to stem anxiety among Republicans already uneasy about poor reviews for his State of the Union address in January and a subsequent appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The skeptical tone of the questions Bush faced -- all of which centered on the war in Iraq or the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks -- underscored the decline in his political standing since his last news conference in December 2003. That session came while Bush was riding a wave of public support just after the capture of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Most polls at that time found Bush’s job approval near 60%, with support for the decision to invade Iraq and optimism about the country’s reconstruction also swelling. Now, amid intense violence in Iraq, Bush’s approval rating in most surveys has fallen just below 50% -- the danger zone for an incumbent.
In contrast to the earlier optimism, a Newsweek poll released Saturday found that a majority of Americans were concerned that Iraq could become “another Vietnam, in which the United States does not accomplish its goals despite many years of military involvement.”
At his news conference, Bush’s response to those doubts was a curious mixture of tenacity and passivity. He was unyielding and often eloquent when explaining why he believed it so important for the United States to transform Iraq into an outpost of freedom in the Middle East. But at times he seemed to place the principal burden for achieving that on others.
Bush was perhaps most powerful when he spoke of the conviction he shared with British Prime Minister Tony Blair about the stakes involved in Iraq.
“He understands, like I understand, that we cannot yield at this point in time; that we must remain steadfast and strong; that it’s the intentions of the enemy to shake our will,” Bush said. “That’s what they want us to do. They want us to leave. And we’re not going to leave.”
Bush repeatedly portrayed the effort to create a new Iraqi government as an expression of America’s highest ideals and an essential step in transforming the Islamic world -- which he argued would eventually make America more secure.
“This is hard work,” Bush said. “It’s hard to advance freedom in a country that has been strangled by tyranny. And yet we must stay the course because the end result is in our nation’s interest.”
Bush pledged to stick with his June 30 deadline for empowering an interim Iraqi government to assert more control over the country.
Yet although Bush was clear about his aspirations for Iraq, he at times minimized his role in their realization. He strongly suggested that it had become less the responsibility of American officials to devise a workable solution.
“That’s what Mr. Brahimi is doing,” Bush said, referring to Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy in Iraq. “He’s figuring out the nature of the entity we will be handing sovereignty over [to].”
Bush offered a similar response when asked whether the United States needed more troops in Iraq to quell the turmoil and violence. Bush deferred that decision to Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command. Those answers clouded the image of resolve Bush tried to convey.
Kristol, publisher of the Weekly Standard, a leading conservative magazine, said he was struck by Bush’s willingness to cede such crucial decisions to Brahimi and Abizaid.
“Those two statements are in my mind a failure of presidential leadership,” he said.
Asked to name the biggest mistake he’s made since the 2001 attacks, Bush did not identify a misstep. Instead, he suggested that coalition forces might still find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and insisted that he was justified in seeking Hussein’s overthrow even if they are not found.
Above all, Bush presented himself as the leader of a nation at war. Over and again, he portrayed terrorism as a fundamental, open-ended threat that will reshape American life for the indefinite future.
As he has since he began the push to remove Hussein from power, Bush reached back to the Sept. 11 assault to justify the war in Iraq. The conflict there, he insisted, is “a theater in the war on terror.” Creating a stable Iraq, he continued, “will make other victories more certain in the war against the terrorists.”
At such moments, no one could doubt Bush’s conviction that invading and rebuilding Iraq is central to protecting America in this unsettling new era of global terrorism. Yet with Iraq in turmoil, his fate in the November election may turn on whether a majority of Americans agree.