Citing America's war experience in Asia, and even Vietnam, President Bush on Wednesday made the case for staying the course in Iraq and reiterated his support for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
In a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the president compared the war in Iraq to U.S. involvement's in Asia that lost popular backing but which he argued eventually proved its worth and led to lasting peace.
“We are still in the early hours of the current ideological struggle, but we know how the others ended, and that knowledge helps guide our efforts today,” the president said.
“The ideals and interests that led America to help the Japanese turn defeat into democracy are the same that lead us to remain engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Bush said. “The defense strategy that refused to hand the South Koreans over to a totalitarian neighbor helped raise up an Asian Tiger that is a model for developing countries across the world, including the Middle East."
“The result of American sacrifice and perseverance in Asia,” he said, “is a freer, more prosperous and stable continent whose people want to live in peace with America not attack America.”
Bush even cited Vietnam as a cautionary tale for those urging troop withdrawals today.
"Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left," Bush said. "Whatever your position in that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps' and 'killing fields.'"
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., quickly dismissed Bush’s position.
“President Bush’s attempt to compare the war in Iraq to past military conflicts in East Asia ignores the fundamental difference between the two,” he said. “Our nation was misled by the Bush administration in an effort to gain support for the invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, leading to one of the worst foreign policy blunders in our history.”
Bush’s speech at the VFW is the first in a planned two-punch combo.
After comparing the current war against extremists with the militarists of Japan and the communists in Korea and Vietnam in Wednesday’s speech, he plans to discuss the war in Iraq in the context of its implications for the broader Middle East in a speech next Tuesday at the annual American Legion convention in Reno, Nev.
Backing for al-Maliki
In his speech Wednesday, Bush also emphasized that he had not abandoned al-Maliki.
"Prime Minister Maliki's a good guy, a good man with a difficult job and I support him," Bush said in a speech to military veterans.
"And it's not up to the politicians in Washington, D.C. to say whether he will remain in his position," Bush said. "It is up to the Iraqi people who now live in a democracy and not a dictatorship."
The president's statements came as the White House sought to dispel the impression left by Bush that he was distancing himself from the embattled Iraqi leader.
On Tuesday, Bush had offered a tepid endorsement of the Iraqi government, expressing frustration at the lack of progress and saying it was up to the Iraqi people to decide whether to replace those in power. The remark brought an angry response from al-Maliki who said, “No one has the right to place timetables on the Iraq government. It was elected by its people.”
With violence unrelenting, political pressure mounted for al-Maliki to show progress in bringing Iraq’s battling factions together.
Bush acknowledged his frustration with Iraqi leaders’ inability to bridge political divisions on Tuesday, but said only the Iraqi people can decide whether to sideline the troubled prime minister.
“Clearly, the Iraqi government’s got to do more,” Bush said at the close of a two-day summit with the leaders of Mexico and Canada.
Spokesman weighs in
On Wednesday, the White House set out to reframe Bush’s comment and the way it was interpreted.
National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the president’s words were not intended to signal a withdrawal of support for al-Maliki. As a result of the heavy media coverage of his remarks at the North American summit in Canada, Bush will insert a direct line of support for al-Maliki in his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference, Johndroe said.
“Prime Minister Maliki knows where the president stands,” Johndroe told reporters ahead of Bush’s speech. The spokesman said that after Bush’s comments in Canada, the White House had tried to make clear Bush was not distancing himself from Maliki.
“It appears that did not come through for whatever reason,” Johndroe said.
When they met in Jordan last November, the president called al-Maliki “the right guy for Iraq.” Now, he continually prods al-Maliki to do more to forge political reconciliation before the temporary military buildup ends.