By Mike Allen and Sam Coates
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 23, 2005
SALT LAKE CITY, Aug. 22 -- President Bush acknowledged the human toll of the Iraq war in blunt numerical terms on Monday, a gesture that advisers said was aimed in part at deflecting criticism that he is not sensitive to the sacrifices imposed by his policies.
Breaking with the previous White House approach of putting little public emphasis on fatalities, Bush said the nation has "lost 1,864 members of our armed forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and 223 in Operation Enduring Freedom" in Afghanistan.
"We owe them something," he said at the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "We will finish the task that they gave their lives for. We will honor their sacrifice by staying on the offensive against the terrorists and building strong allies in Afghanistan and Iraq that will help us win and fight -- fight and win the war on terror."
Bush's speech was his first public appearance in nine days and came in a month when his Texas vacation has been shadowed by the encampment of Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, and other antiwar protesters outside his ranch in Crawford.
Bush's aides said they have no illusion about quieting the demonstrators in Crawford, but they said the address was aimed at convincing a "broader audience in the country" that "this president recognizes the hardship of war and the sacrifices that are being made," as one senior official put it.
Bush struck a defiant tone in rejecting critics' views. "Terrorists in foreign lands still hope to attack our country," he said. "A policy of retreat and isolation will not bring us safety."
He said he would never settle for "less than total victory over the terrorists and their hateful ideology."
The speech is the first of three Bush will give in military settings in the next two weeks. They are part of an effort to mitigate the barrage of discouraging Iraq news -- including what polls show is flagging public support for the U.S. role there -- as the White House builds up to the fourth anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The president's advisers were aware that increasing attention will be given to the Iraq death toll as it approaches the milestone of 2,000. By the end of Monday, the Defense Department's official toll had risen to 1,869 in Iraq. "Each of these men and women left grieving families and loved ones back home," Bush said. "Each of these heroes left a legacy that will allow generations of their fellow Americans to enjoy the blessings of liberty."
Bush's critics often point out that he has not attended a funeral for any soldier who has fallen in Iraq, and his speeches seldom address specific tragedies that are in the news on a particular day.
A senior Bush aide said the White House has been "sensitive about the subjectivity of elevating one sacrifice over another, but the president thought it was important to take stock collectively and say that these people are heroes."
Bush rarely lingers after speeches, but he stayed behind for 17 minutes to bask in the adulation of the VFW audience. He grinnedas he loped along the front of the crowd and posed for photographs, kissed women, called kids "buddy" and signed caps, programs and coasters. He often rushes onto Air Force One when he is headed for a leisure destination, but Bush delayed his departure for Idaho -- where he plans to spend two days mountain-biking at an opulent resort -- to individually greet 200 members of the Utah Air National Guard.
But even here, in a state that gave Bush a higher vote percentage than any other (72 percent) in 2004, he was met with noisy protesters, suggesting they may become a staple of his forays into the country. The demonstrators, led by Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, enjoyed supportive honks from passing cars. Before Bush arrived, two policemen tied a cordon across the plaza outside the Salt Palace Convention Center to separate the opponents from a small band of Bush supporters.
Bush spoke a day after Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said on ABC's "This Week" that the U.S. involvement in Iraq "has destabilized the Middle East" and that the nation "should start figuring out how we get out of there." Democrats criticized Bush's remarks. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) said in a statement that Bush "failed to give the American people a realistic assessment of where we stand today, and where we should be going."
Saluting the veterans who "triumphed over brutal enemies" and "liberated continents," Bush drew a parallel between the World War II generation and the forces now in Iraq by saying, "At this hour, a new generation of Americans is defending our flag and our freedom in the first war of the 21st century."
On Wednesday, Bush will speak to a National Guard audience in Idaho, a state in which he won 68 percent of the vote. Bush plans to say that the stakes in Iraq are high, aides said, and that failure would embolden the enemy.
Next week, Bush will travel to San Diego to mark the 60th anniversary of the allied victory over Japan in World War II. He plans to relate that to Iraq by pointing to the deep skepticism then that democracy could take root in Japan and that a hated enemy could turn into a strong and steadfast ally.
In his speech, Bush also pointed to the Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory in the Gaza Strip as a victory. "Both Israelis and Palestinians have elected governments committed to peace and progress, and the way forward is clear," he said.