President Bush said yesterday that the United States must commit itself to a decades-long transformation of the Middle East and termed the U.S. occupation of Iraq a turning point in the future of worldwide democracy.
In a soaring and passionate speech that consciously echoed Ronald Reagan's call a generation ago for a "crusade for freedom" against the Soviet Union, Bush spoke of the spread of democracy as a moral mission and the war in Iraq as part of an American obligation to extend freedom as it did in World War II and the Cold War.
At the White House, President Bush meets Army Pvt. Phillip Ramsey, who was wounded outside Baghdad.
(Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
Live, Noon ET: Washington Post staff writer David Von Drehle will discuss the president's speech and the direction of U.S. foreign policy.
"Iraqi democracy will succeed -- and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran -- that freedom can be the future of every nation," the president said. "The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution."
Bush's speech was the latest effort by the administration to stop the slipping support for the U.S. occupation of Iraq at home and abroad. Though he had previously mentioned the spread of Mideast democracy as a justification for the invasion of Iraq, Bush elevated that rationale to primacy yesterday, making no mention of weapons of mass destruction and only passing reference to national security and terrorism.
Bush spoke almost exclusively of the fight in Iraq as part of an American burden that he traced back to the Marne. "In the trenches of World War I, through a two-front war in the 1940s, the difficult battles of Korea and Vietnam, and in missions of rescue and liberation on nearly every continent, Americans have amply displayed our willingness to sacrifice for liberty," he said. "The sacrifices of Americans have not always been recognized or appreciated, yet they have been worthwhile."
A senior administration official familiar with the speech's preparation said the purpose was to "elevate the president's foreign policy to a moral cause, and remind people why they're fighting." The official said such a discussion "takes the whole thing out of troop levels and border patrols," subjects that have been vexing for the administration during the deadly Iraqi insurgency that has claimed the lives of 140 U.S. troops since Bush declared major combat over on May 1.
Even as Bush asked for endurance in the Middle East for "decades to come," the Pentagon announced details of a troop-rotation plan that will reduce the U.S. force in Iraq to 105,000 in May from the current 132,000. And even as Bush spoke about a hunger in the Mideast for the American message of freedom, the State Department issued an advisory warning of "the continuing threat of anti-American violence" in the region.
Though Bush spoke of a "willingness to sacrifice," a CNN-USA Today-Gallup Poll released yesterday showed that 54 percent of respondents disapproved of Bush's Iraq policies, up from 41 percent in August.
Later in the day at the White House, Bush signed into law an $87.5 billion spending package, mostly for Iraq. But in his address, Bush spoke indirectly of the cost of the war. "This is a massive and difficult undertaking," he said. "It is worth our effort, it is worth our sacrifice, because we know the stakes. The failure of Iraqi democracy would embolden terrorists around the world, increase dangers to the American people and extinguish the hopes of millions in the region."
The speech came after some division within the administration about how best to cast the hostilities in Iraq. A Republican source said some of the more politically minded of Bush's advisers argued "that the whole issue must be framed only in terms of American security."
The speech, while presenting no new policy, contained tough words for Iran, Syria and the Palestinian Authority, while labeling Cuba, Burma, North Korea and Zimbabwe "outposts of oppression in our world" governed by "relics of a passing era." Bush had gentler admonitions for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and particularly China, whose citizens, he said, will "insist on controlling their own lives."
Though he made no mention of Russia, which is undergoing a democratic crisis over the government's arrest of an oil tycoon, Bush drew a parallel between his efforts to repair the "freedom deficit" in the Middle East and Reagan's efforts to bring democracy to central and eastern Europe.
Bush delivered his remarks to the National Endowment for Democracy, an organization Reagan launched with a 1982 speech to the British Parliament. Bush, predicting a spread of democracy with his "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East," deliberately echoed Reagan's "crusade for freedom" speech denouncing the Soviet Union.
Just as Reagan spoke about the Soviet Union in 1982 as "a society where productive forces are hampered by political ones," Bush spoke of the "failures of political and economic doctrines" in the Middle East. Just as Reagan in 1982 said, "It may not be easy to see, but I believe we live now at a turning point," Bush said, "We've reached another great turning point -- and the resolve we show will shape the next stage of the world democratic movement."