As War Shifts, So Does the Message
President Bush on Tuesday retooled his original argument for the Iraq war, justifying the U.S. military presence there as the solution to a problem that critics say the war itself caused.
More than two years ago, Bush argued that Saddam Hussein’s control over Iraq could make the nation a haven for terrorists. But in his nationally televised speech, Bush asserted that the tumult that has followed Hussein’s removal created the same threat.
In the lead-up to the war, Bush presented the invasion of Iraq primarily as a means of preventing the Iraqi dictator from providing nuclear, biological or chemical weapons to terrorists.
After coalition forces failed to find evidence of such weapons, and several investigations did not uncover meaningful links between Hussein and Al Qaeda, the president increasingly stressed the possibility that creating a democracy in Iraq could encourage democratic reform across the Middle East.
In his speech Tuesday before a crowd of soldiers at Ft. Bragg, N.C., Bush still emphasized the cause of democracy. He also mixed optimism about conditions in Iraq with sober assessments of the continuing challenge there.
But mostly Bush defended the war as a means of preventing another terrorist attack on the United States. The most striking argument Bush offered for his policy in Iraq was that the Mideast nation could become a sanctuary for terrorists if U.S. forces withdrew.
By completing “the mission,” Bush declared, “we will prevent Al Qaeda and other foreign terrorists from turning Iraq into what Afghanistan was under the Taliban -- a safe haven from which they could launch attacks on America and our friends.”
That argument drew instant scorn from some Democrats, who argued that Bush was defending the continued military operations on the basis of a threat that did not exist before the invasion.
“Most Americans are aware that the hotbed of terrorism never existed in Iraq until we got there and it has, in fact, grown increasingly as we are there,” Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, Bush’s Democratic opponent in the 2004 election, told CNN after the speech.
Bush’s heavy emphasis on Sept. 11 in his address followed a speech last week in which Karl Rove, his chief political advisor, dramatically raised the issue. Rove charged that while conservatives “prepared for war” after the 2001 attacks, liberals wanted “to offer therapy and understanding for our attackers.”
Democrats see the twin speeches as signs that Bush, facing public anxiety about the war in Iraq and some of the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, is hoping to regain his footing by returning public attention to the terrorist attacks that transformed his presidency.
Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic consultant, charged that the reason the administration is emphasizing 9/11 again “is simple: It is a strategy of fear. But as the nation is further and further removed from what happened on that day ... I really think the sand is going through the hourglass on this for the president.”
Bush offered no new policies in his remarks. Instead, as he has in major speeches before, he presented the war as a test of American resolve, arguing that to shift course would provide a victory to terrorists.
His tone was optimistic, but he was clearly much more cautious about the challenges remaining in Iraq than Vice President Dick Cheney has been. Cheney recently said the insurgency was in its “last throes.”
The speech continued a public relations drive on the war that the White House began last week when leading Pentagon officials appeared on Capitol Hill and Bush met with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari.
The effort reflects the conclusion in the White House that Bush, who had focused primarily on domestic priorities since his reelection in November, needs to make the case for the war more forcefully and consistently.
“The sound of silence is over,” said one GOP strategist familiar with White House thinking, who asked for anonymity in discussing administration planning.
Still, many Republican strategists hold modest expectations for the ability of any argument from Bush to lastingly shift public opinion, absent actual improvement in Iraq.
“Reality matters so much more than speeches at this point,” said Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard and a leading neoconservative advocate of the war.
Bush delivered the speech against a backdrop of rising political turbulence over the war. In the last few weeks, Democrats from Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco have markedly escalated their criticism of the war and accused the White House of exaggerating progress. A few Republicans, such as Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, have expressed similar concerns.
On Tuesday, Kerry appeared on the Senate floor to deliver his most extensive remarks on the war since the election. He urged Bush to accelerate training of Iraqi security forces and give other nations a larger role in the effort; pressure the Iraqi government to provide a larger role for minority Sunni Muslims; and organize a multinational force to patrol Iraq’s borders.
For the first time, Kerry also urged Bush to renounce the establishment of any permanent U.S. bases in Iraq.
But Kerry pointedly did not endorse the call from some Democratic liberals to begin a process of withdrawal. Biden, in his speech last week, criticized that idea, underscoring the divisions among Democrats.
Polls show that the public, though discouraged about Iraq, seems uncertain and ambivalent about what to do next. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday found that Bush had made small but perceptible gains since early June on questions such as whether the war has contributed to the nation’s long-term security and was worth fighting, given the costs.
Even so, 53% of those responding to the survey said the war did not justify the costs, and, for the first time, a majority -- 52% -- said Bush had “intentionally misled” the public in making his case for the war.
In a separate CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey released Monday, Bush tied his lowest numbers on both his handling of Iraq (40%) and his overall job approval rating (45%).
Yet about two-thirds of those polled by Gallup also said establishing a friendly and stable Iraqi government was “important” to the U.S. Nearly three-fifths of those polled in the Washington Post/ABC survey said the U.S. should keep its military forces in Iraq “until civil order is restored there.”
Taken together, these numbers portray a public increasingly disillusioned with the decision to invade and worried about the course of the war -- but still unconvinced that the answer is simply to withdraw.
In that sense, tolerance for the continued deployment of American troops may depend less on faith in Bush’s arguments than doubt that his critics have yet to outline an alternative that would produce a more acceptable outcome.