FORT BRAGG, N.C. — In a speech that sought to link the struggles of America’s history with the current difficulties in the Middle East, President Bush spoke Tuesday to reassure an increasingly skeptical nation of a “clear path forward” on completing the war effort, and of the rightness of the U.S. military course in Iraq.
The president appealed for the nation's patience for "difficult” and “dangerous” work ahead in Iraq, using a backdrop of U.S. troops and a reminder of Iraq's revived sovereignty to try to reclaim control of an issue that has eroded his popularity.
“Is the sacrifice worth it? It is worth it and it is vital to the security of our country,” Bush told a nation increasingly doubtful about the toll of the 27-month-old war.
Bush mentioned the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks five times during his address, prompting some Democrats to accuse him of falsely reviving the link that he originally used to help justify launching strikes against Baghdad.
“The president’s frequent references to the terrorist attacks of September 11 show the weakness of his arguments,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said. “He is willing to exploit the sacred ground of 9/11, knowing that there is no connection between 9/11 and the war in Iraq.”
In an evening address at the home of the Army’s elite 82nd Airborne Division, which has 9,300 troops in Iraq, Bush acknowledged the toll of the conflict. At the same time, he sought to convince Americans that his strategy for victory needs only time — not changes — to be successful. He offered no shift in course.
“We have a clear path forward,” he said. “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.”
It was a tricky balancing act, one thought to be necessary by White House advisers who have seen persistent insurgent attacks erode Americans' support for the war — and for the president — and increase discomfort among even Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Bush's speech, which occurred on the first anniversary of the transfer of power from the U.S.-led coalition to Iraq's interim government, focused on progress in the past year and promising success against the still-potent insurgency.
“The terrorists can kill the innocent, but they cannot stop the advance of freedom,” the president said.
No timetable for withdrawal
Bush rejected calls to set a timetable for withdrawing 135,000 American troops, despite the fact that earlier in the day, Democrats issued a pre-emptive statement about the situation on Iraq, demanding the president come up with an exit strategy.
Instead, he argued for maintaining the present two-pronged strategy: equipping Iraqi security forces to take over the anti-insurgency fight and helping Iraqi political leaders in the transition to a permanent democratic government.
“Setting an artificial timetable would send the wrong message to the Iraqis, who need to know that America will not leave before the job is done,” Bush said.
“The progress in the past year has been significant, and we have a clear path forward. To complete the mission, we will continue to hunt down the terrorists and insurgents.”
The president also said sending more troops would undermine the U.S. strategy.
“Sending more Americans would suggest that we intend to stay forever,” he said.
Spirit and sacrifice
Bush called on Americans to use small gestures to rally round U.S. servicemen and women around the world on Independence Day.
“This Fourth of July, I ask you to find a way to thank the men and women defending our freedom, by flying the flag, sending letters to our troops in the field or helping the military family down the street,” Bush said.
“I have met with families grieving the loss of loved ones who were taken from us too soon. I have been inspired by their strength in the face of such great loss. We pray for the families. And the best way to honor the lives that have been given in this struggle is to complete the mission.”
Few audiences are as predictably friendly as military ones, duty-bound to show respect for their commander in chief, often bursting into raucous whoops.
Bush’s audience Tuesday evening was unusually quiet while the president spoke, however, applauding in unison after one key passage, as if on cue, and then at the end.
Democrats fault policy
Democrats criticized Bush for not offering more specifics about how to achieve success in Iraq along with his frequent mention of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“The president’s numerous references to September 11 did not provide a way forward in Iraq,” Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said. “They only served to remind the American people that our most dangerous enemy, namely Osama bin Laden, is still on the loose and al-Qaida remains capable of doing this nation great harm nearly four years after it attacked America.”
Bush first mentioned the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center at the beginning of his speech. He acknowledged that Americans are disturbed by frequent deaths of U.S. troops at the hands of insurgents, but tried to draw a comparison with the violence in Iraq and the attacks of 2001.
“The war reached our shores on September the 11th, 2001,” Bush said Tuesday night.
“Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war,” he continued. “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.”
Republican Sen. John McCain defended Bush’s call to stop terrorism abroad before it reaches the U.S. shore in an appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live” program. He said those spreading violence in Iraq “are the same guys who would be in New York if we don’t win in Iraq.”
Bush urged Americans to remember the lessons of Sept. 11 and protect “the future of the Middle East” from men like bin Laden. He repeatedly referred to the insurgents in Iraq as terrorists and said they were killing innocent people to try to “shake our will in Iraq, just as they tried to shake our will on September the 11th, 2001.”
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said it’s because of the lessons of the Sept. 11 attacks that he opposes Bush’s approach to keeping the troops in Iraq without any timetable for withdrawal.
“The U.S. military presence in Iraq has become a powerful recruiting tool for terrorists, and Iraq is now the premier training ground and networking venue for the next generation of jihadists,” Feingold said.
Bush's address came on the heels of a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll that showed public doubts about the war reaching a high point — with more than half saying that invading Iraq was a mistake. A poll by The Washington Post , published Tuesday, also suggested growing doubts about the Iraq campaign, although most Americans said the United States should stay in the country for an extended period of time.
The administration appears to be shifting its strategy subtly, focusing more on political solutions to the insurgency. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has confirmed that talks have taken place with some insurgent leaders, and the U.S. commander of the multinational coalition in Iraq has said the conflict will ultimately be resolved in a political process.
Bush’s speech is part of a new public-relations campaign from the White House to try to calm anxieties about the war. It comes after several conflicting or perplexing messages about the nature and duration of the conflict.
Vice President Dick Cheney made headlines last month with his assertion that the insurgency in Iraq was “in its last throes.” He was later contradicted by the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid, and by Rumsfeld, who said the insurgency could drag on for years.
Rumsfeld also told an interviewer this month that Iraq is “statistically” no safer today than it was before the ouster of Saddam Hussein, although he maintains progress is being made.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.