Bush Offers Plan to End Chaos in Iraq
Seeking to shore up eroding public confidence in his leadership, President Bush told the American people Monday night that he has a strategy to turn Iraq’s violence and chaos into stability and democracy.
Five weeks before the crucial transfer of sovereignty to an interim government, and five months before he faces reelection, Bush enumerated five steps that he pledged would end with national elections for Iraq in January.
“Our coalition has a clear goal understood by all: to see the Iraqi people in charge of Iraq for the first time in generations,” Bush told an audience of 450 senior officers at the U.S. Army War College. “America’s task in Iraq is not only to defeat an enemy; it is to give strength to a friend -- a free, representative government that serves its people and fights on their behalf.”
The president did not dwell on the prison abuse scandal, which has eroded U.S. credibility around the world and sapped morale at home. But in a symbolic gesture, Bush pledged to demolish the notorious Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, where Saddam Hussein tortured thousands and U.S. soldiers took part in abuse of prisoners that the Red Cross has called “tantamount to torture.”
“Under the dictator, prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture. That same prison became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values,” Bush said, twice stumbling over the pronunciation of the prison’s Arabic name.
“America will fund the construction of a modern maximum-security prison. When that prison is completed, detainees at Abu Ghraib will be relocated. Then, with the approval of the Iraqi government, we will demolish the Abu Ghraib prison as a fitting symbol of Iraq’s new beginning,” he said.
The 32-minute address was the first of a likely half-dozen, the rest expected in coming weeks -- part of an effort to convince the American public that Bush was wise to invade Iraq to depose Hussein. The speech was carried live by cable TV news but not broadcast by major networks, because White House officials did not ask them to preempt their regular programming.
Bush’s demeanor exuded confidence, but his words expressed more humility than in past speeches. Several times he acknowledged errors or miscalculations. Estimates of the number of needed troops were too low, he said. Iraqi forces “fell short” in their performance and have needed more training. And Saddam Hussein’s loyalists, instead of being killed or captured on the battlefield, “melted into the civilian population” to regroup later.
“There are difficult days ahead and the way forward may occasionally appear chaotic,” Bush acknowledged. “Yet our coalition is strong. Our efforts are focused and unrelenting and no power of the enemy will stop Iraq’s progress.”
Bush did not announce a change in course or provide new details of how he expected the transition to proceed. But for the first time, he personally described his approach.
“There are five steps in our plan to help Iraq achieve democracy and freedom,” Bush said. “We will hand over authority to a sovereign Iraqi government, help establish security, continue rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure, encourage more international support, and move toward a national election that will bring forward new leaders empowered by the Iraqi people.”
The ongoing prison abuse scandal and persistent violence in Iraq have helped sink the president’s approval rating to the lowest levels since he took office.
In an ABC/Washington Post poll released Monday, half of Americans surveyed -- an even 50% -- said they disapproved of the president’s job performance, and only 47% approved. Bush’s rating for handling the situation in Iraq was likewise at its worst of his career, with 58% disapproving.
Bush said he was speaking both to Americans and Iraqis. For Iraqis, he stressed that the occupation was temporary.
“I sent American troops to Iraq to defend our security, not to stay as an occupying power,” Bush said. “I sent American troops to Iraq to make its people free, not to make them American. Iraqis will write their own history and find their own way. As they do, Iraqis can be certain, a free Iraq will always have a friend in the United States of America.”
For Americans, the president warned of more difficulty and longer troop deployments. He acknowledged that commanders had underestimated when they said a troop level below 115,000 would be sufficient at this point.
“Given the recent increase in violence, we’ll maintain our troop level at the current 138,000 as long as necessary,” Bush said.
If commanders need more troops, he said, “I will send them.”
As he has in the past, Bush described the choices facing the United States as a duality: perseverance or failure.
“History is moving, and it will tend toward hope or tend toward tragedy,” Bush said.
He said terrorists had one vision of the world, and the United States had another. “These two visions have now met in Iraq and are contending for the future of that country. The failure of freedom would only mark the beginning of peril and violence. But, my fellow Americans, we will not fail. We will persevere and defeat this enemy and hold this hard- won ground for the realm of liberty,” the president said.
A Western diplomat praised the president’s performance, saying he spoke successfully to both the domestic and international audiences.
“In the past, that’s a task that has proved quite difficult for the administration,” the diplomat said. “The speech emphasized what was happening in the region and in doing so was attempting to explain to the American people that there is a strategy. And the president also said that they have learned from their failures and would take steps to address them. That was a recognition that there have been failures.”
But Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an independent Washington think tank, said, “There’s a difference between being self-confident and being inspirational.” The president, Alterman said, “was really self-confident, but I’m not sure how many people outside the U.S. he inspired tonight.”
Alterman noted that both at the beginning and end of the speech, Bush tried to tie Iraq to the “war on terror,” an effort that has been a pillar of the president’s reelection campaign. “But what he needs is to have Iraq work,” Alterman said. “This isn’t something that can be solved by nice words. If the president doesn’t want Iraq to be an election issue, he needs for things to go well.”
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, praised the speech.
“It did accomplish the important points that the president needed to make,” he said. “The first was that the administration has a plan for transition of authority to the Iraqi government, and that we are moving ahead with that plan on schedule. And he laid out enough detail to show the American people that the plan has substance and to let the American people and the Iraqi people know about the formation of this new government.”
“He’s still trying to make lemonade out of a lemon,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “I had hoped that he would be sending in at least another division, and he clearly indicated that he would not.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she was disappointed not to hear “either a change of heart or a change of course.”
“It took 25 minutes before he even focused on the United Nations, and even longer before he focused on Iraqi elections, which are a long one and a half years away,” Boxer said. “And I ask how many of our people will die until then? How much terror will we have to fear until then? And how many more billions of dollars will we have to spend?”
Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas in Austin, said what the president did not say was as important as what he said.
“One thing that didn’t happen tonight that would have signaled more resolve was to set a date by which we expect to pull [troops] out. He wasn’t able to give that,” Buchanan said.
Instead, Buchanan said, the president tried to prepare the nation for more bad news. “This won’t be the last reassurance he has to offer.”
The president gave the speech in the War College gymnasium, with curtains obscuring an indoor running track and other athletic equipment. The backdrop was decorated with the official seal of the college, which is the Army’s premier service school, providing degrees in military strategy to high-ranking officers. It was the first visit to the college by a sitting president since George Washington.
It was not the first time Bush has tried to use a speech to halt a slide in the polls. In September, as attacks on U.S. forces rose, Bush asked for national TV network time to speak to the nation. He announced that he would ask for an additional $87 billion to support the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, the White House did not consider that speech a success, because the president, who spoke from the Cabinet Room, delivered his remarks largely in a monotone and appeared uncomfortable. The choice of a location outside Washington, before a live audience, was apparently designed to avoid those pitfalls.
Reynolds reported from Carlisle and Curtius from Washington.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
The five steps President Bush outlined to help Iraq achieve democracy and freedom:
SOVEREIGNTY: The Coalition Provisional Authority will transfer sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government on June 30.
SECURITY: The United States will help establish stability and security, keeping the number of troops at 138,000 as long as needed.
INFRASTRUCTURE: The U.S.-led coalition will continue rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure so it can quickly gain economic independence and offer a better quality of life.
AID: Additional international support will be sought for Iraq.
ELECTIONS: Free national elections to be held no later than January.
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