Facing the final year of a presidency defined by two wars, President Bush on Thursday presented a broad defense of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and signed a bill temporarily extending the government’s authority to eavesdrop on terrorism suspects.
Bush used a speech to an audience assembled by a conservative Nevada think tank to put pressure on Congress to permanently extend the eavesdropping measure, and to respond to critics who have argued that his focus on Iraq has diverted his attention from the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, allowing them to regain footholds in Afghanistan.
While the president broke no ground on a topic he has been addressing for more than five years, the 33-minute speech served to reassert his foundation for continuing the wars, which he placed in the context of the effort to protect the United States from terrorist attacks.
“Both those countries are part of the war on terror. These aren’t separate, you know, wars; they’re part of the same war; different theaters, certainly different circumstances, but the outcome is essential for our security,” Bush said.
Bush also said he would not alter the course of the unpopular war to protect his party from losses at the polls. “The temptation, of course, is for people to say, ‘Well, make sure you do the politically right thing.’ That’s not my nature,” Bush said, garnering a standing ovation.
The president spoke to the Nevada Policy Research Institute at a meeting and wedding hall, where parking spaces were reserved for “the groom’s party.” The think tank describes itself as focusing on “free-market” solutions to policy challenges of Nevada, the West and the United States.
In a criticism aimed at the foreign policy that preceded his administration -- one exemplified not only by Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger during the Nixon and Ford administrations, but also by the first President Bush -- the president challenged the foundation of Washington’s diplomatic efforts during the second half of the 20th century.
“There used to be a foreign policy that advocated stability as the cornerstone of our policy. But stability just masks the hopelessness that seethed beneath the surface,” he said, presenting the wars, as he has before, in the context of seeking to secure liberty for troubled areas of the world in an ideological battle with extremists.
Suggesting that critics should give the government in Baghdad some slack, he said the Iraqi government was arguing about its 2008 budget, and added: “I’m not sure which government does their budget work better -- ours or theirs.”
The president signed the eavesdropping legislation, the subject of a long battle in Congress, at a small desk next to his lectern at the conclusion of the speech.
The eavesdropping authority, which was extended for six months last summer, would have expired today. The measure Bush signed extends it for 15 days.
He said he expected both parties in Congress “to get this work done so our professionals can protect the American people.”
The measure is designed to update the nation’s surveillance laws, but also place limits on a controversial program Bush launched after the Sept. 11 attacks to intercept international calls and e-mails to noncitizens outside the United States who are terrorism suspects.
The delay stems from a debate over whether to protect telephone companies that cooperated with the program from lawsuits filed by citizens claiming privacy violations.
Complaining that Congress refused six months ago to permanently extend the measure, Bush said: “Now, it’s an interesting train of logic, isn’t it? The tool was necessary six months ago, and yet it was set to expire as if the threat to our country was set to expire. But it’s not. There’s still ongoing threats.”