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Bush Treads on Critics’ Turf

Times Staff Writer

Democrats are eager to score points with voters this fall by talking about President Bush’s handling of the Middle East, Hurricane Katrina and gas prices. On Monday, Bush showed that he too is eager to discuss those knotty topics -- but he framed them as winners for Republican candidates in November, even if polls show voters disagreeing now.

During his third extended question-and-answer session with reporters in as many weeks, Bush underscored GOP strategists’ hopes that even a president plagued by low approval ratings can use his bully pulpit to fill the airwaves with a message designed to help the party’s candidates.

On each topic, Bush acknowledged public anxiety. But he defended his record and, particularly on national security, accused Democrats of weakness.

“I will never question the patriotism of somebody who disagrees with me,” Bush said. “This has nothing to do with patriotism. It has everything to do with understanding the world in which we live.”

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He invoked one of Democrats’ favorite topics -- the National Security Agency’s warrantless domestic surveillance, which a federal judge ruled unconstitutional last week -- as a way to ridicule his opponents while tying Iraq to his broader foreign policy of targeting terrorists.

“Those who heralded the decision not to give law enforcement the tools necessary to protect the American people simply don’t see the world the way we do,” Bush said.

Monday’s hourlong news conference, held in a temporary briefing room across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, was the latest effort by Bush to reassure voters who have grown wary of his leadership on the foreign and domestic fronts.

Although he has often been accused of avoiding critical questioners, Bush’s appearance suggested he was settling into a pattern of regular, wide-ranging interactions with reporters in which he can appear confident and presidential.

Asked how fuel prices might affect the GOP’s hold on Senate and House majorities, Bush said, “The strategy is to recognize that dependency upon crude oil ... in a global market affects us economically here at home, and therefore, we need to diversify away as quickly as possible.”

He cited his administration’s push for expanded tax credits for the purchase of hybrid fuel vehicles, encouragement of the use of ethanol in place of crude oil, and support for legislation to spur construction of oil refineries -- a bill strongly opposed by Democrats when the House approved it by only two votes in October.

Asked about the slow pace of recovery in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities devastated a year ago by Katrina, Bush promised that millions of dollars in housing grants were on the way, and he defended the federal commitment of more than $110 billion overall.

“The place where people, I’m sure, are going to be most frustrated is whether or not they’re going to get the money to rebuild their homes,” said Bush, who plans to spend a night on the Gulf Coast next week to mark the anniversary of the storm. “And my attitude is, we’ve appropriated the money, and now we’ll work with states to get the money.”

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Democrats have pointed to the Katrina response as evidence of administration incompetence and insensitivity to African Americans, who accounted for most of the storm’s victims. Some conservatives, however, have balked at Bush’s promises to spend billions on recovery.

Monday’s session was dominated by discussion of the Middle East, including the situation in Iraq and the tenuous cease-fire between Israel and the Hezbollah militia.

Bush called for the disarming of Hezbollah, which launched hundreds of rockets at northern Israel from southern Lebanon over four weeks before the cease-fire took effect last week.

But with the group receiving help from Iran and Syria -- and with the Lebanese government lacking the political and military power to intervene -- Bush conceded the process might be long and difficult.

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He also acknowledged that further negotiations would be needed before France and other members of a proposed international force would be willing to play a role.

“First things first,” he said, “is to get the rules of engagement clear so that the force will be robust to help the Lebanese.”

On Iraq, Bush argued that the outcome of the war and the extent to which the United States remains engaged are central not just to that nation’s future, but to America’s security.

“The question facing this country is ... do we, one, understand the threat to America?” Bush asked. “In other words, do we understand that ... failed states in the Middle East are a direct threat to our country’s security?

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“And secondly, will we continue to stay engaged in helping reformers, in working to advance liberty, to defeat an ideology that doesn’t believe in freedom? And my answer is, so long as I’m the president, we will.”

But even as he attempted to link Iraq to broader questions of fighting terrorism, Bush offered one of his bluntest concessions to date that Saddam Hussein, deposed in the U.S. invasion, had no role in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Even though Bush and other administration officials argued frequently before the 2003 invasion that Iraq had forged ties with Al Qaeda -- and despite polls indicating many Americans believe Hussein had a role -- the president summed up Iraq’s involvement Monday with one word: “Nothing.”

“Nobody has ever suggested that the attacks of September the 11th were ordered by Iraq,” Bush said. “I have suggested, however, that resentment and the lack of hope create the breeding grounds for terrorists who are willing to use suiciders to kill to achieve an objective.”

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Bush’s comments came as Democrats, long hesitant to engage the White House on national security, have decided to go toe to toe with Bush. The president’s critics say that the Iraq war -- which has cost the U.S. an estimated $308.6 billion so far -- has wasted money that could have been spent on domestic programs and has distracted attention from the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders who plotted the attacks on the United States.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) responded to Bush’s comments Monday by calling his strategy in Iraq “a failure.”

“Far from spreading freedom and democracy in the Middle East, the Bush administration has watched while extremists grow stronger, Iran goes nuclear, Iraq falls into civil war, and oil and gas prices skyrocket,” Reid said in a statement. “Simply staying the course is unacceptable. We need a new direction in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, where the president’s failed policies have made America less safe.”

The Democrats’ top strategist in House campaigns, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), called Bush’s approach a “stay the course” strategy that will help Democrats.

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“President Bush confirmed that if Americans like his leadership on Iraq, Katrina relief and gas prices, they can confidently choose to keep this Republican Congress that will let him stay this course with absolutely no accountability,” Emanuel said in a statement.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

On Iraq:

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‘The strategy is to help the Iraqi people achieve their objectives and their dreams, which is a democratic society. . . . We’re not leaving so long as I’m the president. That would be a huge mistake.’

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On Lebanon:

‘America’s making a long-term commitment to help the people of Lebanon because we believe every person deserves to live in a free, open society that respects the rights of all.’

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In the president’s words

On Iraq

‘War is not a time of joy. These are challenging times, and they’re difficult times, and they’re straining the psyche of our country. I understand that.’

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On U.S. elections

‘There’s a fundamental difference between many of the Democrats and my party, and that is, they want to leave before the job is completed in Iraq.’

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On campaigning and the war on terrorism

‘I will never question the patriotism of somebody who disagrees with me. This has nothing to do with patriotism. It has everything to do with understanding the world in which we live.’

Source: Associated Press


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