President Bush today rejected growing pessimism in the U.S. foreign policy establishment about stability in Iraq, asserting that "we're making great progress" there and that elections at the end of the month will be "an incredibly hopeful experience" for Iraqis.
In a photo opportunity at the White House, Bush was asked about comments by Brent Scowcroft, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who served as national security adviser under presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush and until recently chaired the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Scowcroft told a Washington luncheon yesterday that he expects "an incipient civil war" between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq after the Jan. 30 elections. He said the U.S. military presence in Iraq is inflaming the Middle East and hurting the war on terrorism, and he suggested turning the operation over to NATO or the United Nations.
"The Iraqi elections, rather than turning out to be a promising turning point, have the great potential for deepening the conflict," Scowcroft said at the New America Foundation luncheon, expressing a view increasing shared by both Democratic and Republican foreign policy specialists.
Asked if he shares Scowcroft's concerns, Bush told reporters today, "Quite the opposite. I think elections will be such a incredibly hopeful experience for the Iraqi people."
He said that 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces "appear to be relatively calm." The four remaining provinces "are places where the terrorists are trying to stop people from voting," he said. "So I know it's hard. But it's hard for a reason. And the reason it's hard is because there are a handful of folks who fear freedom."
The United States and other nations must "be aggressive in the spread of freedom" and "stand with those brave citizens in Iraq who want to vote," Bush said.
"If the free world steps back and lets these people have their way . . . we'll never address the root causes of terror and hatred, which is frustration caused by tyranny," he said. "If we step back and allow for tyrannies to exist and people not to be free, the world our children will grow up in will be a hostile world."
Bush said he views the Jan. 30 elections "as a historical marker for our Iraq policy," adding, "It is an interesting point."
After the balloting, "we look forward to working with the newly constituted government to help train Iraqis as fast as possible so they can defend themselves," he said. "Because ultimately the success in Iraq is going to be the willingness of the Iraqi citizens to fight for their own freedom."
Bush said in response to a question, "I think we're making great progress" in Iraq. He added, "And it's exciting times for the Iraqi people. And it's so exciting there are some who are trying to intimidate people from going to the polls."
Bush spoke in the Oval Office after announcing that he has chosen former senators Connie Mack (R-Fla.) and John Breaux (D-La.) to head a nine-member advisory panel to recommend ways to simplify the U.S. tax code.
His unbridled public optimism about Iraq does not appear to be shared by the American public, according to a new poll.
An AP-Ipsos poll taken Jan. 3-5 shows that 54 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of Iraq, while 44 percent approve. The poll, released today, has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
The public was evenly divided on Bush's overall job approval rating, with 49 percent expressing approval, 49 percent disapproval and 2 percent saying they had "mixed feelings," according to the poll. That approval rating was as low for a reelected president starting a second term as any in more than 50 years, the Associated Press reported. By comparison, Gallup polls showed presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton with job approval ratings of nearly six in 10 just before their second terms.
On other questions, 51 percent of those polled said they thought the country was generally heading in the wrong direction, 51 percent disapproved of Bush's handling of the economy and 56 percent disapproved of his handling of domestic issues such as health care and education. On his handling of foreign policy issues and the war on terrorism, 50 percent approved, 48 percent disapproved and 2 percent had mixed feelings.
As for the way the Republican-controlled Congress is handling its job, 53 percent disapproved and 41 percent approved.