By Peter Baker and Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 29, 2005
FORT BRAGG, N.C., June 28 -- President Bush appealed to the American public Tuesday night to remember "the lessons of September 11th" and not lose faith in the Iraq war effort despite unremitting violence, declaring in a prime-time address that "the proper response is not retreat."
Surrounding himself with uniformed soldiers and standing before a backdrop emblazoned with American flags, Bush portrayed the two-year-old war in Iraq as the logical extension of a larger struggle that began when hijackers slammed passenger jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. But with the public support wavering in recent polls, Bush spoke in blunt terms about the trauma in Iraq and the desire to bring troops home.
"Like most Americans, I see the images of violence and bloodshed," Bush said in a 28-minute address from this military base, broadcast on all the major television networks. "Every picture is horrifying, and the suffering is real. Amid all this violence, I know Americans ask the question: Is the sacrifice worth it? It is worth it, and it is vital to the future security of our country."
Bush wore a metal bracelet with the names of two soldiers killed in Iraq, given to him just before the speech by the widow of one. His sober language was a shift in tone from some of the administration's more optimistic statements lately, exemplified when Vice President Cheney asserted that the insurgency is in its "last throes."
But Bush rejected any change in course, ruling out either a deadline for troop withdrawals or an increase in troop levels, as critics from opposite sides of the spectrum have endorsed. Instead, he tried to reassure Americans that the U.S. venture in Iraq has made powerful strides toward establishing a democratic government that ultimately will be able to defeat the insurgency, and he urged Americans not to lose "our heart, our nerve" during "a time of testing."
Notably, at a time when military recruiting has suffered, Bush made his first direct pitch to young Americans to enlist.
"We fight today because terrorists want to attack our country and kill our citizens, and Iraq is where they are making their stand. So we will fight them there, we will fight them across the world, and we will stay in the fight until the fight is won," Bush said in the only moment when the audience of 750 soldiers and airmen in dress uniforms interrupted him with applause.
Bush invoked Sept. 11 five times in his speech and referred to it by implication several more times. Although he has previously agreed with investigators that there is "no evidence" of a link between Saddam Hussein's government and the attacks masterminded by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda, he used much of his speech to depict the militants in Iraq as the same breed of Islamic terrorist who struck the United States. The White House titled his remarks a discussion on the "War on Terror," not Iraq.
"This war reached our shores on September 11th, 2001," Bush said. "The terrorists who attacked us -- and the terrorists we face -- murder in the name of a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom." He added that many of the insurgents in Iraq "are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania."
The address continued a shift in the administration's emphasis as it has justified the Iraq war, beginning with the threat posed by Hussein's suspected weapons of mass destruction, continuing to the need to promote democracy in the Middle East and now suggesting a more seamless link to the attacks on American soil.
"The only way our enemies can succeed is if we forget the lessons of September 11th, if we abandon the Iraqi people to men like Zarqawi, and if we yield the future of the Middle East to men like bin Laden," Bush said Tuesday night, referring to Abu Musab Zarqawi, the insurgent leader in Iraq. Bush quoted bin Laden calling the Iraq conflict a "third world war" and added that terrorists "are trying to shake our will in Iraq, just as they tried to shake our will on September 11th, 2001."
After the speech, Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) issued a biting statement saying that Bush's "numerous references to September 11th did not provide a way forward in Iraq" but instead "served to remind the American people that our most dangerous enemy, namely Osama bin Laden, is still on the loose."
Bush's insistence that waging the fight in Iraq is containing terrorists who might otherwise strike in America is also fueling argument. As critics see it, the Iraq war is creating a breeding ground for terrorists.
Even before the speech, other leading Democrats called Bush's vision out of touch with reality. Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the party's 2004 presidential nominee, said in a floor speech: "When the vice president absurdly claims the insurgency is 'in its last throes,' he insults the common sense and intelligence of the American people, and diminishes our stature in the world."
The liberal group MoveOn.org, meanwhile, announced that it is spending $500,000 on a television and newspaper advertising campaign featuring remarks critical of Bush's Iraq policy made by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), quoting him saying, "The White House is completely disconnected from reality. . . . It's like they're just making it up as they go along."
The political back-and-forth came against a backdrop of relentless violence in Iraq. An Iraqi legislator who had served as temporary speaker of the new parliament was assassinated by a suicide car bomber Tuesday, while two U.S. soldiers and several Iraqis were killed in a flurry of attacks. The killing of Dhari Fayad, Iraq's oldest legislator, was the second political assassination in a week. Almost 1,750 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq since the war began, and nearly that many Iraqis have been killed since the new Iraqi government was formed two months ago.
Bush's speech offered nothing new in policy or strategy but instead reframed an argument that the president's advisers believe has not been presented adequately to most Americans. Bush had deliberately avoided talking much about Iraq in the first half of the year, both to dedicate his time to his legislative agenda and to allow the newly elected Baghdad government to take the lead in the public mind. Yet as they watched Bush's approval ratings sink to the lowest level of his presidency and Democratic critics grow more assertive, increasingly restive White House advisers concluded a couple of weeks ago that Bush needed to use his presidential platform to reclaim control of the debate.
His words were intended to send the signal that he understands the growing doubts in many parts of the country over the state of affairs in Iraq. While Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recently alluded to the possibility that the insurgency could persist for another decade, Bush assured Americans concerned about a long-term presence in Iraq that his goal is to move quickly to a point at which Iraqi security forces can defend themselves. "We will stay in Iraq as long as we are needed and not a day longer," he said. He added, "Our strategy can be summed up this way: As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down."
Bush said progress on this goal is being steadily achieved through the development of a Iraqi constitution, and a democratic government that will incorporate disgruntled minority Sunnis, whose grievances have fueled the insurgency. At the same time, U.S. troops are building an Iraqi security force, and he said 160,000 troops and police have already been trained.
But Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), who is ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and who just returned from his fifth trip to Iraq, said on MSNBC's "Hardball" that he wished Bush had "stated more bluntly" how long it would take for sufficient Iraqi troops to be trained. "It's going to take much more time than the president has implied up until now," Biden said.
Bush asked Americans to fly the flag and to help military families over the Fourth of July holiday to show their support for the troops. He positioned the fight in Iraq as the latest in a line going back to the American Revolution and the Civil War. "There were many chances to lose our heart, our nerve or our way, but Americans have always held firm," he said.
The White House had long expected to stage a presidential speech marking the anniversary of returning partial sovereignty to the Iraqis but given the political hemorrhaging, advisers two weeks ago decided that the address should be upgraded to a nationally televised prime-time event, said senior officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know it's time to address this issue," one official said. "We have to get our side of the story out . . . and make our case." When they took the recommendation to Bush, the officials added, he immediately agreed. "He intuitively understood the need," another adviser said.
The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that 62 percent of Americans think the United States has gotten bogged down in Iraq, while a majority consider it a mistake to have gone to war there and disapprove of Bush's handling of the continuing conflict. At the same time, the numbers had stabilized or slightly improved for Bush compared with a month earlier, and 53 percent described themselves as optimistic about Iraq's prospects over the next year.
As the setting for the speech, Bush chose a military town in the heart of the North Carolina countryside. About 9,300 soldiers and airmen from Fort Bragg and the adjacent Pope Air Force Base are deployed to Iraq, and 89 have been killed there or in Afghanistan.
Before his speech, Bush spent nearly three hours meeting privately with 90 relatives of slain service members. Crystal Owen, a third-grade teacher, asked the president to wear a metal bracelet memorializing her deceased husband, Staff Sgt. Mike Owen, and Cpl. John Santos, both of whom were killed Oct. 15, 2004, in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Whereas other presidents traditionally made prime-time national addresses from the solemnity of the Oval Office, Bush has made a practice of delivering them from untraditional locations, including his Texas ranch and, most famously, an aircraft carrier on which he first declared "major hostilities" in Iraq over while speaking in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner. The Fort Bragg speech was the sixth prime-time address of his presidency outside of Washington.
Milbank reported from Washington. Staff writers Mike Allen and Charles Babington contributed to this report.