In a rare moment of self-criticism, President Bush suggested Wednesday that the United States did not move civilian workers into Iraq quickly enough to stabilize the country after the military invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
Bush made his remarks during a speech in which he called for greater U.S. spending on reconstruction programs in fledgling democracies and for the creation of a corps of civilian first responders to be deployed during international crises.
The problematic nature of rebuilding Iraq -- which has been marred by a sense of disorganization and allegations of mishandled funds -- has been widely acknowledged by foreign policy analysts and some administration officials.
But Bush, who once famously declared that he was stumped when a reporter asked if he had made any mistakes during his tenure, rarely concedes missteps. Despite accusations from Democrats and other critics at home and abroad that the administration has bungled the rebuilding, he has been a steadfast defender of U.S. actions in Iraq.
Wednesday’s remarks appeared to indicate a shift in tone by a president whose legacy rests, in large part, on a successful reconstruction effort.
“You know, one of the lessons we learned from our experience in Iraq is that while military personnel can be rapidly deployed anywhere in the world, the same is not true of U.S. government civilians,” Bush said, addressing the International Republican Institute, a Washington group headed by prominent Republicans that promotes democracy and civil societies overseas.
Bush praised U.S. government workers in Iraq for performing an “amazing job under extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances.”
“But the process of recruiting and staffing the Coalition Provisional Authority was lengthy, and it was difficult,” he said.
For that reason, Bush said, his administration is proposing to spend millions more to create an “active response corps” made up of Foreign Service officers and civil service officials who can deploy in a hurry.
“This new corps will be on call -- ready to get programs running on the ground in days and weeks, instead of months and years,” Bush said, noting that his 2006 budget proposal calls for more money to be spent on the newly created Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization, an arm of the State Department that will oversee the response teams.
Bush’s remarks come amid growing scrutiny of the U.S.-led rebuilding efforts in the months after the 2003 ouster of Hussein.
This month, the government began a criminal investigation into suspected embezzlement by U.S. officials who had failed to account for about $100 million designated for reconstruction projects.
Iraqis complain that basic necessities, such as electricity and water, are not in ready supply. Critics say the United States failed to adequately prepare for the insurgency that has resulted in thousands of Iraqi and American casualties.
The centerpiece of Bush’s second-term foreign policy agenda -- laid out in his Jan. 20 inaugural address -- is a doctrine of ending tyranny and spreading democracy, and Wednesday’s speech marked a blunt acknowledgment that such goals were not easily attained.
Having recently returned from a visit to the former Soviet Union, where he celebrated successes and pressed for more reforms, Bush praised a “period of great idealism.”
He listed the achievements of pro-democracy movements in former Soviet republics such as Ukraine and Georgia, along with advances in Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Yet to achieve idealistic goals, we need realistic policies to help nations secure their freedom and practical strategies to help young democracies consolidate their gains,” he said.
“No nation in history has made the transition from tyranny to a free society without setbacks and false starts,” he said. “What separates those nations that succeed from those that falter is their progress in establishing free institutions.”
He added: “History teaches us that the path to a free society is long and not always smooth.”
Bush said the U.S. supported pro-democratic movements in nations such as Belarus, which he described as Europe’s “last dictatorship,” and in countries across the Middle East striving for change.
“In these countries, and across the world, those who claim their liberty will have an unwavering ally in the United States,” he said. “This administration will stand with the democratic reformers -- no matter how hard it gets.”
He called for election monitors in Egypt, where critics have questioned President Hosni Mubarak’s intentions to abide by his initial claims to back multicandidate elections.
Bush met Wednesday at the White House with Egypt’s prime minister, Ahmed Nazif -- a meeting in which the two leaders spent a “great bit of time” discussing political reforms, said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
In addressing the International Republican Institute, Bush faced a group whose board included some who had been critical of the administration’s post-invasion policies and preparedness.
The group’s chairman, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), has said that the United States “made serious mistakes right after the initial successes.”
Another board member is Brent Scowcroft, the national security advisor to President George H.W. Bush. He has been one of the war’s most prominent critics, and had predicted that the U.S.-backed elections this year might lead to a civil war.
The group honored the president with its Freedom Award, crediting Bush with a post-Sept. 11 foreign policy that had freed millions of people around the world and had given hope to others who lived under tyrannical governments.
The group also gave an award posthumously to Pope John Paul II, praising his role in hastening the decline of communism.
Times staff writer Tyler Marshall contributed to this report.