Bush Defends Iraq Policy
President Bush called on the nation Tuesday to hold firm in its support for the war in Iraq, saying victory there was essential to preventing another terrorist attack on American soil.
Repeatedly invoking the Sept. 11 attacks and even quoting Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Bush described the mission during a prime-time address as fundamentally a battle against the terrorist network.
“Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war,” Bush said before an audience of Army troops. He argued that the militants must be defeated abroad “before they can attack us at home.”
The speech, part of a major weeklong public relations offensive by an administration struggling to bolster sagging support, portrayed the fight against international terrorism as the war’s central rationale. Although the argument has a powerful appeal for some Americans, polls have shown that many others doubt that the effort to install a stable new government in Iraq will protect the United States.
More Americans than ever now see the war in Iraq as separate from the war on terrorism, according to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll released Monday. The poll shows that 50% consider the two efforts separate, whereas 47% see them as related.
Bush spoke at a time when his approval ratings are falling, his political allies are nervous, and he has been under pressure to explain to Americans the strategy and future of the persistently violent conflict in Iraq. But the speech signaled no change in strategy, and most of its arguments were similar to those made recently by administration officials.
The Ft. Bragg military base, home of the 82nd Airborne Division, presented a solemn and patriotic backdrop for a wartime address a week before Independence Day. It was also the anniversary of the official return of sovereignty to an Iraqi government.
Hundreds of troops stood at attention without applauding as Bush entered, and refrained from clapping during most of the address.
There was one round of applause in the middle of the speech, apparently sparked by a White House aide.
Unlike other recent addresses, which have focused on the benefits of spreading democracy through the Middle East, Bush placed unusual importance on Bin Laden and other terrorist leaders.
In the 28-minute speech, the president referred to “terror” or “terrorism” 34 times, and made six direct references to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bush said that those who were killing people on the streets of Baghdad “are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. There is only one course of action against them: to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home.”
He quoted the commander of coalition military forces in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, as saying: “We either deal with terrorism and this extremism abroad, or we deal with it when it comes to us.”
Bush also quoted Bin Laden as saying that the “Third World War is raging” in Iraq. And the president said that the terrorists would succeed only “if we forget the lessons of September the 11th, if we abandon the Iraqi people to men like [militant leader Abu Musab] Zarqawi, and if we yield the future of the Middle East to men like Bin Laden.”
The president said that “this will not happen on my watch.”
Although Bush linked the deadliest terrorist attacks in American history with the war in Iraq, a continuous stream of reports has found no such links.
Both a joint congressional inquiry into those attacks and the Sept. 11 commission concluded that there was no operational link between the Al Qaeda plot to hijack four planes nearly four years ago and Saddam Hussein’s former government in Baghdad.
A year ago this week the staff of the Sept. 11 commission concluded that it had found “no credible evidence” of cooperation between Iraq and Al Qaeda. The commission’s final report, issued July 23, 2004, varied only slightly, concluding that there was no “collaborative operational relationship.”
Before the war began, Bush contended that the United States had a legal right to disarm Hussein’s government, which it argued could provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. But no such weapons were found, and later Bush began stressing that a democratic Iraq could lead to democratic reform across the Mideast.
Even as he argued Tuesday that the Iraq war must continue, the president acknowledged that many Americans had come to harbor doubts about it. In past speeches, he had shown little patience for doubters, but seemed to want to engage them Tuesday.
“Amid all this violence, I know Americans ask the question: Is the sacrifice worth it?” Bush said. “It is worth it.”
At another point, he acknowledged: “I recognize that Americans want our troops to come home as quickly as possible. So do I.”
At a time when critics have accused him of painting too rosy a picture of the conflict, Bush sought to stress again and again that the mission would continue to be a daunting one, using such words as “difficult,” “dangerous” and “tough.”
“We have more work to do, and there will be tough moments that test America’s resolve,” he said.
In describing the situation, Bush spoke in far different tones than Vice President Dick Cheney had recently when he said the insurgency was in its “last throes.”
The administration has been accused of trying to exaggerate the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces it is training. But Bush appeared to be trying not to overstate their readiness, noting that although some can fight by themselves, a larger number can do so only with the help of U.S. and allied forces.
“We have made progress, but we have ... a lot more work to do,” he said.
U.S. commanders in Iraq say there are more than 100 trained and equipped Iraqi battalions with widely varying capabilities. Only three of those battalions are judged by the U.S. military to be capable of launching counterinsurgency operations independent of U.S. troops. Last week, Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said that it would be a long time before a significant number of battalions proved capable of independent operations. He did not provide a specific timeline for the estimate.
The remaining battalions fall into three lesser categories: those capable of conducting operations with embedded U.S. “transition teams,” those unable to operate against insurgents even with U.S. help, and those units still unable to perform basic military functions.
The Pentagon has not released specific data about how many battalions fall into each category, saying the information is classified.
Bush said Tuesday that more than 160,000 Iraqi troops had been “trained and equipped.” The Pentagon has set a goal of about 300,000 Iraqi troops.
In another sign of the president’s predicament in regard to the war, he used the speech to urge young people to enlist in the military, now struggling to meet its recruitment goals.
“And to those watching who are considering a military career, there is no higher calling than service in our armed forces,” Bush said.
Before the speech, the president met privately at the base with relatives of 33 fallen soldiers from the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ft. Bragg is the home base of about 9,300 troops now in Iraq.
Immediate reaction to the speech divided along partisan lines.
“The president is right. We cannot allow the terrorists to shake our resolve,” House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said.
Democrats called for a new approach.
“There is a growing feeling among the American people that the president’s Iraq policy is adrift, disconnected from the reality on the ground and in need of major mid-course corrections,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said. “Staying the course, as the president advocates, is neither sustainable nor likely to lead to the success we all seek.”
“Rescuing the mission in Iraq takes more than a new speech, it will take a new policy and a whole series of steps to get it right,” said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who unsuccessfully challenged Bush for the presidency last year.
Some Republican moderates, who have been troubled by the drop in public support for the war, were more muted in their praise.
“For us to succeed in Iraq, the American people must understand and trust our policy. Hearing directly from the president helps to develop that understanding and trust,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who has harshly criticized the administration.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and senior military leaders have appeared in recent days to argue that, amid the violence, progress continues, and the country cannot afford to abandon its commitment. Earlier Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared on morning television talk shows.
Polls have been indicating support for the war is at its lowest level since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
The new USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found that just one in three Americans believed the United States was winning the war, with a record 61% saying that Bush lacked an effective strategy. The poll showed that 53% of Americans believed going to war was a mistake, versus 46% who thought it was not.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll also released Monday found that 56% of those surveyed disapproved of Bush’s handling of the war, but 52% believed the effort was contributing to U.S. security. Only about one in five thought the insurgency was weakening, according to that poll.
For the first time, a majority of those surveyed thought the Bush administration had deliberately misled Americans on the reasons for going to war when it argued in 2002 and 2003 that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Bush’s speech Tuesday echoed appeals he has made in the past. In May 2004, for example, he spoke at the U.S. Army War College to urge patience at a time of faltering public support. Earlier this year, he spoke of Iraq as part of the U.S. campaign to spread democracy throughout the Middle East.
Dan Bartlett, White House counselor, said Bush had decided to give the speech because increasing violence in Iraq was causing the public to look to him for “context” and “understanding.”
Times staff writers Maura Reynolds, Mark Mazzetti, Josh Meyer and Steven Bodzin in Washington contributed to this report.