By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 19, 2005
OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea, Nov. 19 -- Facing a backlash on Iraq at home and abroad, President Bush was planning to declare Saturday that an early withdrawal would be "a recipe for disaster" and to vow to stay in the war until "we have completed our mission."
His sharp retort, which was to be delivered at a U.S. military base south of Seoul, followed an unexpected setback. Just hours after Bush hailed South Korea for contributing more troops to Iraq than any other ally except Britain, South Korean defense officials revealed plans to withdraw one-third of their force.
Aides traveling with the president sought explanations from their South Korean counterparts while politely playing down the development in public. But Bush was not reserved in dealing with his critics at home, according to excerpts of a speech to be delivered later Saturday here at Osan Air Base.
"In Washington, there are some who say that the sacrifice is too great and they urge us to set a date for withdrawal before we have completed our mission," Bush planned to say at the base, headquarters of the 7th Air Force, the main U.S. Air Force unit in South Korea. "Those who are in the fight know better."
Bush's text quoted a top U.S. general in Iraq saying that a withdrawal schedule would be "a recipe for disaster" and promised to follow the "sober judgment" of the military. "We will fight the terrorists in Iraq and we will stay in the fight until we have achieved the victory our brave troops have fought and bled for," Bush was to say.
The Iraq debate has shadowed Bush on his week-long, four-nation trip, from the tough speech he gave at an Alaskan refueling stop on the way over to the harsh denunciations of his critics that his staff has issued each day.
On Friday, thousands of protesters, angry about the war and global trade policies, chanted "No Bush" in the streets of the South Korean port city of Pusan, clashing with police, who responded with water cannon blasts.
Bush was in Pusan for the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. The APEC summit wrapped up Saturday with agreements to push forward on global trade talks and coordinate regional efforts to head off a possible avian flu pandemic.
Bush also conferred with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, discussing Iran's nuclear program and the Kremlin's latest efforts to curtail domestic opposition. Bush met with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia on Saturday to discuss economic and security issues and was to travel Saturday night to Beijing, where he planned talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao on trade, currency, human rights and North Korea's nuclear weapons program. He began his trip in Japan and was to finish it Monday in Mongolia.
White House officials recognized that none of the issues discussed on the trip was likely to produce major news that would knock Iraq off the front page, especially after new reports of violence in Baghdad and word that a prominent pro-military Democrat, Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.), had turned against the war. The president dealt with the war debate rather than avoiding it and commissioned advisers to map out a strategy to punch back.
Dan Bartlett, a senior adviser to Bush, said the president had no choice, because he has been so provoked by Democrats accusing him of manipulating prewar intelligence. "There is a bright red line there, and it's one the Democrats have crossed," Bartlett said. "It's not only fair game for the president to correct the record, it's his obligation." Bartlett claimed some success, saying Democrats back in Washington in the last few days seemed "a bit back on their heels." He added, "They have a hard time defending their own position."
After Murtha called for withdrawing troops from Iraq, the Bush team issued an unusually harsh statement, likening him to anti-Bush filmmaker Michael Moore and accusing him of wanting to "surrender to the terrorists."
Bush's aides were also forced to deal with the South Korean troop drawdown, just after President Roh Moo Hyun played gracious host and the two leaders doffed their ties for a convivial visit. Roh wined and dined the president and showed him the nation's oldest and most fabled Buddhist temple, where they rang a bell together and pledged eternal friendship. Roh mentioned nothing about troop withdrawals, according to U.S. officials.
The South Korean Defense Ministry revealed its plans to allies in parliament after that, saying it intended to pull out 1,000 of its 3,200 troops from Iraq. Even Roh and the Foreign Ministry expressed surprise. Contacted at his office, a Foreign Ministry official said he could not explain and was still trying to find Defense Ministry colleagues to figure out what was happening.
With U.S. officials demanding explanations, Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon quickly emerged to tell reporters that the government was seeking National Assembly approval by Dec. 31 to keep some South Korean troops in Iraq. But he would not say how many.
Special correspondent Joohee Cho contributed to this report.