Despite a strong delivery, solemn demeanor, and a respectful military audience, U.S. President George W. Bush's effort to rally the nation behind his Iraq strategy through a prime-time televised speech at Fort Bragg, North Carolina offered nothing new to reassure a restive public that the situation was coming under control.
Rejecting increasingly bold calls by Democrats and some Republicans to at least establish specific benchmarks in Iraq that could offer the public some prospect for drawing down the 140,000-troop force that has been there for more than two years now, Bush insisted that he would stay the course and withdraw U.S. soldiers only when Iraqi forces were fully capable of taking their place.
Nor did he admit that the administration had made any mistakes in carrying out the war, least of all in its decision to invade. A new Washington Post/ABC poll found that 53 percent of respondents believe that the war did not justify the costs and that 52 percent now believe that Bush ”intentionally misled” the public about the threat posed by Iraq before the invasion.
The speech capped a weeklong administration offensive to reverse sagging public confidence in Bush's leadership that included a hastily arranged visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari. It appeared designed primarily to tie his strategy in Iraq once again to the Sep. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, despite the conclusions by all relevant official inquiries that the ousted Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein had no operational ties with al Qaeda, let alone 9/11.
Indeed, he referred to the foe in Iraq as ”insurgents” only once, compared to the two dozen times he called them ”terrorists” during the 25 minutes of his speech. He even quoted Osama bin Laden -- a man whose name was virtually banned from Bush's election campaign last year lest it remind the electorate that he remains at large -- as saying that ”the whole world is watching this war.”
”Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war,” Bush declared. ”Many terrorists who kill innocent men, women, and children on the streets of Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York, in Washington, and Pennsylvania. There is only one course of action against them: to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home.”
Overall, he referred to 9/11 half a dozen times during the speech.
None other than David Gergen, a media commentator who served as a top political aide to both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, said he was ”offended” by Bush's efforts to tie Iraq to the ”war on terror,” although he agreed that it could be an effective tactic since the public has consistently rated Bush's management of the ”war on terror” higher than his Iraq policy.
”Even though you and I may not like it, it's a trump card for the president,” he told an interviewer on CNN.
But others expressed doubt that the tactic will continue to work the same magic and pointed to a new USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll released Tuesday morning. In addition to finding that a record 61 percent of the public believe Bush lacks a clear plan for handling the situation in Iraq, it also found that, for the first time, a plurality of citizens, by a 50-47 percent margin, now sees the war in Iraq as separate from the war on terrorism.
”I fear he's gone to that well too many times,” said former Clinton adviser Paul Begala, while fellow Democratic consultant Tad Devine, who referred to Bush's efforts as a ”strategy of fear,” told the Los Angeles Times, ”I really think the sand is going through the hourglass on this for the president ...as the nation is further and further removed from what happened on (Sep. 11).”
Critics were also quick to point out the irony of Bush's assertion that Iraq has now become the ”latest battlefield” in the war on terror. In building the case for war back in November 2002, noted a Democratic think tank, the Center for American Progress (CAP), Bush had argued that invading Iraq was necessary to prevent it from becoming a ”training ground” for terrorists, while a recent classified intelligence report warned that it had become precisely that for the next generation of radical Islamists as a result of the U.S. occupation.
”Most Americans are aware that the hotbed of terrorism never existed in Iraq until we got there, and it has, in fact, grown increasingly (since then),” John Kerry, who ran as the Democratic presidential candidate against Bush last November, told CNN after the speech.
While Republicans voiced strong support for the president, it was the growing unrest in their ranks, as well as the rapid loss of support in the public-opinion polls, that persuaded the White House that a major new public relations effort was necessary to save the policy.
Even then, Republicans interviewed after the speech admitted that the administration had a serious problem, only allayed partially by Bush's solemn tone, of reconciling its official optimism with the day-to-day news of rising casualties among both U.S. troops and Iraqi citizens, after a brief hiatus following last January's elections.
More than 1,700 U.S. soldiers have died in the Iraqi conflict, more than half of them since the formal return to Iraqi sovereignty one year ago, an occasion that Bush's speech Tuesday was intended to mark. As noted by the Post Wednesday, the number of car bombings in Iraq has risen from 18 in June 2004 to 135 last month.
Most embarrassing was a statement by Vice President Dick Cheney earlier this month in which he insisted that the insurgency in Iraq was in its ”last throes,” a characterization that quickly became the butt of jokes on late-night talk and comedy shows.
The evident gap between rhetoric and reality became even more apparent last week when the overall regional commander, Gen. John Abizaid, told lawmakers that the insurgency was as strong now as it was six months ago, and when Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld attempted to reconcile Cheney's assertion at the same time that he admitted that the insurgency could continue for another 12 years.
Republican anxiety over such mixed signals was significantly increased this past week when Republican senators asked to meet with Abizaid and other top military officers behind closed doors apparently to get their off-the-record assessment of the situation in Iraq.
According to the Congressional Quarterly, their request was rejected by the White House, which offered instead to send Rumsfeld, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers and Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick to brief the senators.
The senators turned down the offer.
© 2005 IPS