A Speech Meant to Rally Public Support Doesn't Answer Key Questions
By Robin Wright and Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 25, 2004; Page A12
With only five weeks before the transition in Iraq and five months before the U.S. elections, President Bush last night called for more patience, more time, more resources and more support to transform troubled Iraq.
But Bush did not provide the midcourse correction that even some Republicans had called for in the face of increasingly macabre violence in recent weeks -- from the assassination of the president of Iraq's Governing Council and controversy over dozens killed by U.S. warplanes at a purported wedding party to the grisly beheading of an American civilian.
Nor did Bush try to answer some of the looming questions that have triggered growing skepticism and anxiety at home and abroad about the final U.S. costs, the final length of stay for U.S. troops, or what the terms will be for a final U.S. exit from Iraq. After promising "concrete steps," the White House basically repackaged stalled U.S. policy as a five-step plan.
In effect, the president said his current plan is good enough to win, and he set out to rally Americans to his cause with rousing language that placed the conflict in Iraq in the context of the larger, more popular battle against terrorism.
"Our terrorist enemies have a vision that guides and explains all their varied acts of murder," Bush said. "They seek to impose Taliban-like rule, country by country, across the greater Middle East." He asserted that extremists now see Iraq as "the central front in the war on terror."
Still, the questions left unanswered last night could continue to make the administration vulnerable to criticism. "The more explicit and precise, the better. A lot of rhetoric without altering the substance will not do," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, who has been critical of the Bush administration's foreign policy. "What's involved is basically American credibility."
The president's soothing recitation of policy particulars offered few benchmarks or specifics on the most sensitive issues, such as the relationship between the Iraqi government to be installed July 1 and the U.S.-led coalition troops that are scheduled to remain in Iraq to provide basic security -- and what happens if Iraqis do not want foreign forces to launch new offensives. That issue underscores the potential controversies even after the occupation ends.
Throughout his address at the Army War College, Bush tried to generate new support for his Iraq strategy by contrasting two strikingly different scenarios for the future -- "one of tyranny and murder, the other of liberty and life." Tough times in the coming months will be offset by prospect of hopeful change in the years ahead, he said.
Echoing a theme from a year ago after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, the president evoked his broad "vision" of a new Iraq inspiring freedom that will "advance and change lives in the greater Middle East." He also waxed eloquent about a future for the people of the Middle East that would allow them to "reclaim the greatness of their own heritage."
The alternative, Bush warned, is the descent of Iraq and the region into extremism. "The failure of freedom would only mark the beginning of peril and violence," he said. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were an undercurrent throughout the speech, as the president sought to rekindle the public acclaim associated with the broader war on terrorism that began by toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Bush's speech was the kickoff to a campaign to reassure U.S. voters and rally international backing for a United Nations resolution circulated yesterday at the Security Council, which the White House hopes will be put to a vote before the president leaves for D-Day commemorations in Europe the first week of June. It will be followed by a speech every week until the June 30 transition, as the Bush administration tries to shore up public support. Among Americans, 64 percent believe the president does not have a clear plan for Iraq, according to a poll released yesterday by the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey.
The immediate reaction to the speech, which was not carried by any of the major broadcast networks, broke down largely on partisan lines. Republican stalwarts said Bush fulfilled the mission set out by the White House to reassure the American public. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said in a statement that Bush's speech "gave us the two things we needed most: an honest report on the present and a detailed plan for the future."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) said Bush was "at his best tonight in laying a foundation, upon which he has to build every week to sustain the support of the American people and the world in bringing freedom to Iraq."
But Bush immediately came under attack from key congressional Democrats who specialize in foreign policy.
"I'm extremely disappointed. He didn't answer any of the important questions. I don't think he leveled with the American people. This may be the last time we have to get it right," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del), ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry said Bush had only repeated general principles already laid out by the administration. Kerry said the president needed instead to "genuinely reach out" to allies so the United States no longer has to "go it alone" and to create stability.
"That's what our troops deserve, and that's what our country and the world need at this moment," he said in a statement.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company