President Bush said Thursday that mistakes made by three of his predecessors, including the Reagan administration’s restraint after the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, had emboldened terrorists and helped set the stage for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bush said he was determined not to repeat the pattern by pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq before the insurgency there is contained and Iraqi forces are able to provide adequate security.
“To leave Iraq now would be to repeat the costly mistakes of the past that led to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,” Bush said at the Pentagon after a briefing by Defense officials.
Without mentioning his predecessors by name, he cited as examples the U.S. response to the hostage crisis in Iran during the Carter administration, the Lebanon bombing during Reagan’s term and four events on Bill Clinton’s watch: the first World Trade Center attack, the killing of American soldiers in Somalia, the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa and the attack on the battleship Cole. In each case, the president chose not to retaliate with large-scale military offensives.
“The terrorists concluded that we lacked the courage and character to defend ourselves, and so they attacked us,” Bush said. Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and senior military officials stood at his side.
Bush did not mention any events during the first Bush administration, such as his father’s decision to end the 1991 Persian Gulf war without sending coalition troops to Baghdad to topple Saddam Hussein.
Bush’s characterization of progress in fighting terrorism was questioned by some.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), the senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said the number of “significant terrorist attacks” tracked by the State Department had reached its highest level and that most occurred in Iraq.
“There are nine times as many terrorist attacks in Iraq this year as there were last year,” Markey said. “What kind of progress is that?”
The president spoke two days before tens of thousands of antiwar activists were expected to gather in the nation’s capital to demand a rapid U.S. disengagement from Iraq. The participants Saturday will include Cindy Sheehan, whose soldier son was killed in Iraq last year. Sheehan set up a tent camp outside Bush’s Texas ranch during his vacation last month.
Bush will not be in town when the antiwar demonstrators are scheduled to converge on the White House, where they hope to deliver a message to him. Bush was scheduled to fly to Texas and Colorado late Friday to review Hurricane Rita preparations and Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts and to stay overnight in Colorado. His plans beyond that remained in flux, the White House said.
Bush, whose job approval ratings have fallen to new lows amid growing concern about the continuing violence in Iraq, said he understood that people had disagreements over the U.S. military engagement.
“Some Americans want us to withdraw our troops so that we can escape the violence. I recognize their good intentions, but their position is wrong,” he said.
“The terrorists are testing our will and resolve in Iraq. If we fail that test, the consequences for the safety and security of the American people would be enormous. Our withdrawal from Iraq would allow the terrorists to claim an historic victory over the Untied States.
“That’s not going to happen on my watch,” Bush said.
Speaking to reporters after the two-hour briefing by Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and Gen. John P. Abizaid, who leads the U.S. Central Command, Bush said he was satisfied that the United States was “making progress” in its anti-terrorism campaign.
Times staff writer Mark Mazzetti contributed to this report.