TOBYHANNA, Pa. — President Bush, in the most forceful defense yet of his Iraq war policy, accused critics Friday of trying to rewrite history and charged that they’re undercutting America’s forces on the front lines.
“The stakes in the global war on terror are too high and the national interest is too important for politicians to throw out false charges,” the president said in his combative Veterans Day speech.
“When I made the decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power, Congress approved it with strong bipartisan support,” Bush said. “While it’s perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began.”
Bush spoke at the Tobyhanna Army Depot on a stage decorated with posters that said “Strategy for Victory.”
It was his toughest attack yet against growing doubts and criticism about a war that has claimed the lives of more than 2,056 members of the U.S. military. As casualties have climbed, Bush’s popularity has dropped. His approval rating now is at 37 percent in the latest AP-Ipsos poll, an all-time low point of his presidency.
Democrats in recent weeks have been accusing the White House of manipulating intelligence on Iraq and leaking classified information to discredit critics of the war.
Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, was indicted last month for obstructing justice, perjury and lying after a two-year investigation into the leak of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity.
View from Democrats
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., quickly returned Bush’s criticism. “Its deeply regrettable that the president is using Veterans Day as a campaign-like attempt to rebuild his own credibility by tearing down those who seek the truth about the clear manipulation of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war,” Kennedy said in a statement.
“Instead of providing open and honest answers about how we will achieve success in Iraq and allow our troops to begin to come home,” Kennedy said, “the president reverted to the same manipulation of facts to justify a war we never should have fought.”
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said on Thursday Democrats were insisting that Americans “get the truth about why the White House cherry-picked and leaked intelligence to sell the war in Iraq.”
“The president may think this matter can be swept under the rug or pardoned away, but Democrats know America can do better,” Reid added.
The Bush administration’s main justification for the Iraq war was that it posed a threat because it had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, but none have been found.
Bush’s remarks brought a few jabs from fellow Republicans as well.
In a speech in Philadelphia, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., criticized how the war has been presented to Americans — both by the media and the White House. Afterward, Santorum said the war has been “less than optimal” and “maybe some blame could be laid” at the White House. “Certainly, mistakes were made,” Santorum said.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., who is weighing a run for president in 2008, has said he agrees with Democrats who are pressing the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee to move forward with an investigation into whether the administration manipulated intelligence.
“I was probably the main driver on the Republican side because I thought we needed the answers to whether intelligence was misused, intentionally or unintentionally,” Hagel told the Omaha World-Herald in a story published Friday.
Bush also cites inquiry, U.N.
Defending the march to war, Bush said that foreign intelligence services and Democrats and Republicans alike were convinced at the time that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
“Some Democrats and anti-war critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people about why we went to war,” Bush said.
He said those critics have made those allegations although they know that a Senate investigation “found no evidence” of political pressure to change the intelligence community’s assessments related to Saddam’s weapons program.
He said they also know that the United Nations passed more than a dozen resolutions citing Saddam’s development and possession of weapons of mass destruction.
Democrats voted for war, Bush says
“More than 100 Democrats in the House and the Senate who had access to the same intelligence voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power,” Bush said.
Bush did not single out any critics by name but said many of them had supported Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., his rival for the White House in last year’s presidential elections.
The president said the criticism has taken a toll on U.S. forces.
“These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America’s will,” Bush said.
A call for unity behind U.S. troops
“As our troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life, they deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send them to war continue to stand behind them,” the president said. “Our troops deserve to know that this support will remain firm when the going gets tough. And our troops deserve to know that, whatever our differences in Washington, our will is strong, our nation is united and we will settle for nothing less than victory.”
Bush said the United States and its allies are determined to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of extremists and prevent them from gaining control of any country.
Bush singled out Syria for particular criticism, saying its government had taken “two disturbing steps” in recent days. He cited the arrest of Syria pro-democracy activist Kamal Labwani and a “strident speech” by President Bashar Assad. In that speech, Assad said his government would cooperate with a U.N. investigation that implicated Syrian officials in the killing of a Lebanese leader, but warned he would no longer “play their game” if Syria “is going to be harmed.”
Bush said Syria “must stop exporting violence and start importing democracy.”
Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove, who is still under the cloud of the CIA leak investigation, hopped Air Force One to attend Bush’s speech.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.