Concluding a monthlong vacation marked by antiwar protests outside his Texas home and a rising death toll in Iraq, President Bush on Tuesday invoked the anniversary of the Japanese surrender in World War II and the postwar rebirth of that country as a parallel to present-day U.S. efforts in the Middle East. Bush spoke against the dramatic backdrop of the Ronald Reagan, a 1,092-foot, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier docked at North Island Naval Air Station, where he drew repeated applause from an audience of Marines, sailors and World War II veterans.
The picturesque setting, enthusiastic crowd and historical references contrasted sharply with the political realities facing Bush as he returns today to Washington, where some lawmakers have begun comparing Iraq to Vietnam, a war with far more negative connotations than the Allied victory over Japan and Nazi Germany.
Bush pegged his remarks to the 60th anniversary Friday of Japan’s formal surrender to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, likening the attack on Pearl Harbor, which sparked the U.S. entry into World War II, to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that led to today’s fight against terrorism.
“Once again, war came to our shores with a surprise attack that killed thousands in cold blood,” Bush said. “Once again, we face determined enemies who follow a ruthless ideology that despises everything America stands for. Once again, America and our allies are waging a global campaign with forces deployed on virtually every continent. And once again, we will not rest until victory is America’s and our freedom is secure.”
Bush sought to connect Japan’s postwar transition to democracy to the effort by Iraq’s leaders to draft and approve a constitution -- a process that has frustrated U.S. officials, who tried unsuccessfully to coax Sunni Arab leaders in Iraq to support the document and avoid what some critics now say is a recipe for civil war.
“The Japanese Constitution would guarantee the universal freedoms that are the foundation of all genuine democracies while, at the same time, reflecting the unique traditions and needs of the Japanese people,” Bush said, adding that it “set Japan on the path to a free society.”
Moments later, he said the Iraqi Constitution “guarantees freedom for all Iraqi citizens,” although he acknowledged that the effort faced obstacles.
“The document they have produced protects fundamental human freedoms, including freedom for women, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience and freedom of expression,” the president said. “This constitution is the result of democratic debate and compromise, and the Iraqi citizens can be proud of what they have accomplished.”
Bush also offered a new reason for the importance of military victory in Iraq, suggesting that if Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab Zarqawi, who heads a branch of the terrorist network in Iraq, were to gain control of that country, “they’d seize oil fields to fund their ambitions.”
In his remarks, Bush did not mention the protesters who have gained prominence during his month away from Washington, led by Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq last year who has called on Bush to withdraw U.S. forces immediately. He did refer indirectly to those who say the United States has failed to rebuild Iraq in the midst of an insurgency that has grown since the 2003 invasion.
Bush said that Presidents Roosevelt and Truman “understood that the sacrifices of Allied forces would mean nothing unless we used our victory to help the Japanese people transform their nation from tyranny to freedom.”
“There were many doubters,” Bush said. “American and Japanese experts claimed that the Japanese weren’t ready for democracy.”
The president has made comparisons between World War II and the Iraq war for more than two years, drawing criticism that the analogy is inappropriate. Some people have said that, in contrast to Iraq, few serious attacks on U.S. troops occurred in occupied Japan and that MacArthur’s military government in Tokyo was far more controlling and efficient than the government in Iraq.
Some historians have noted that Americans were fully engaged in the war against Germany, Italy and Japan, which had well-defined enemies and battlegrounds and which relied on the draft, whereas the war in Iraq has seemed more remote.
Democrats said Tuesday that Bush’s leadership fell far short of Roosevelt’s.
“Democratic Presidents Roosevelt and Truman led America to victory in World War II because they laid out a clear plan for success to the American people, America’s allies and America’s troops,” Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean said.
“President Bush has failed to put together a plan, so despite the bravery and sacrifice of our troops, we are not making the progress that we should be in Iraq,” Dean said. “The troops, our allies and the American people deserve better leadership from our commander in chief.”
With Bush returning to Washington today, Sheehan and other protesters have planned their own departure from encampments outside his ranch near Crawford, Texas.
The groups Gold Star Families for Peace and Military Families Speak Out will leave today on a national bus tour dubbed “Bring Them Home Now,” which will end with a rally Sept. 24 in Washington.
Sheehan’s cause has been embraced by public figures such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, actor Martin Sheen and folk singer Joan Baez, all of whom visited her at “Camp Casey,” named for her son. But she has not gained support from leading lawmakers in Washington.
Bush’s speech Tuesday marked the latest of his several recent efforts to turn around public opinion on the war, raising themes similar to those he invoked during appearances before veterans and troops last week in Utah and Idaho.
In each of those appearances, Bush has been careful to spell out a goal of total victory. In the past, however, he has said that the battle against terrorism would probably never end at a “peace table” similar to the one used in the surrender ceremony 60 years ago between MacArthur and the Japanese.
“I don’t think you can win” the war on terrorism, Bush told NBC News in August 2004. “But I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world.”
Tuesday’s crowd included dozens of World War II veterans, several Medal of Honor recipients, 1,700 Marines from Camp Pendleton and the San Diego recruit depot and 5,500 sailors from several commands around San Diego. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also was present.
Most of the veterans and their families seemed appreciative of Bush’s historical parallels.
“In technology it’s different, but in spirit it’s the same,” said Steven Schweitzer, a retired Marine Corps master gunnery sergeant who was part of the 2003 assault on Baghdad. “We’re preserving our way of life, doing what has to be done.”
Ann Carpenter stood in the back of the crowd, holding a framed photograph of her father, Navy officer Robert Hudson Taylor, taken with MacArthur during World War II.
“It’s the same now as then -- America has to preserve freedom,” said Carpenter, 71. “We’re not over in Iraq to take over any country.”
David C. Graham, 81, a retired Navy senior chief, said the president’s critics should “ease up and show your support.”
But he said there was one difference between World War II and Iraq.
“Back then we knew what our enemy looked like,” he said. “Now we don’t know who the next guy is going to be to load up a car with explosives and crash into one of our trucks.”