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An Offering of Detail But No New Substance

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, right, listens to President Bush's speech at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, right, listens to President Bush's speech at the U.S. Naval Academy. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 1, 2005

Thirty-two months after U.S. forces invaded Iraq, President Bush's advisers concluded that his message of "stay the course" has been translated by a weary American public as "stay forever." And so yesterday the president tried to reassure the nation that he has a comprehensive vision for beating the insurgency and eventually bringing U.S. troops home.

The message was hardly subtle as the White House posted a 35-page "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" on its Web site and hung dozens of "Plan for Victory" signs behind Bush as he addressed midshipmen in Annapolis. But it was intended to reshape the argument against critics who have been gaining traction with congressional calls to withdraw troops immediately or at least set a timetable for pulling out.

Instead of sticking to general statements of resolve as in the past, Bush offered specific examples of what he called progress in building an Iraqi army that can take over the fight from U.S. troops. And in a rare move for a president loath to admit mistakes, he admitted some without ever using the word, granting that "we've faced some setbacks" and that "we learned from our early experiences."

But broadly Bush gave no ground to critics who want a major course change, and the plan he released yesterday offered nothing new substantively. Short of changing conditions on the ground, Bush faces enormous challenges in turning around public attitudes on the war. The American people have grown increasingly sour on Iraq in public polls, and most no longer approve of the way the president is handling the war.

"That's the trick for the president -- he has to turn around public opinion when he's at a low point in the polls," said John Weaver, a political strategist for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "What they've got to do is win this argument and correct the misinformation that's out there about what's going on in Iraq and do so while leveling with the American people that it's going to be a long, hard slog."

The latest speech won Bush few converts in Washington, with opposition leaders rushing out critiques, in some cases even before he had finished speaking in Annapolis. "The president was basically repackaging things and saying everything's fine when every day we read that things are not fine," said former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright. "I so wish I could believe him. I like to believe an American president. But he's got such a credibility issue."

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, offered a more measured response, calling Bush's remarks a "positive step." "The president did a better job laying out where we are and where we're trying to go in Iraq," Biden said in a statement, "but failed to tell us how or when we're going to get there."

The debate in Washington has evolved sharply in the past few weeks after the U.S. military death toll topped 2,000. While Bush traveled through Asia for trade and security talks, Congress engaged in its most robust debates on the war since voting to authorize the use of force in October 2002. Bush and Vice President Cheney launched a sharp counterattack on critics, accusing them of demoralizing troops and wanting to "surrender to terrorists."

Now back from Asia and a Thanksgiving sojourn in Texas, Bush intends a sustained defense of his Iraq policy in the weeks leading up to the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections there, starting with yesterday's speech and continuing with at least two and perhaps three more. He dropped the acrid rhetoric yesterday and professed that "we should not fear the debate in Washington. It's one of the great strengths of our democracy that we can discuss our differences openly and honestly even at times of war."

He summoned a leading Democrat to his own defense, citing an op-ed article opposing timetables for withdrawal that was written by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), who ran for vice president on the ticket opposing Bush in 2000 and lost his bid for the party's presidential nomination to challenge Bush in 2004. In doing so, the White House hoped to turn the tables on the Democrats. "What it does is highlight a split within the Democratic Party," said a senior official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Privately, though, officials acknowledge that they have failed to communicate their message to the public.

"We haven't put it out there in a fashion that has sunk in," said a second official who was not authorized to speak on the record. Advisers were struck by polls showing that a sizable share of the public did not think Bush had a plan for victory in Iraq. "There's a sense that the public does not have a good understanding of what our strategy is and is confused about the level of progress we've made."

Administration officials believe much of the public is still eager for victory and open to persuasion if the president can make the case that he has made progress. They took heart in a survey last week by RT Strategies, a bipartisan polling firm, that found that 49 percent of Americans favor bringing troops home when only "specific goals and objectives" are met, 30 percent want a fixed timetable for pulling out and 16 percent support immediate withdrawal. The middle 30 percent, they figure, is the real political battleground.

Thomas Riehle, a Democrat who runs RT along with Republican V. Lance Tarrance Jr., said many Americans are suspicious of war critics as well as the war. "What is shifting is the sense that the military and White House do not have a good plan to proceed to victory or troop withdrawal," Riehle said in an e-mail. At the same time, he said, the Democrats "don't seem to be in a position to drive opinion . . . where Bush is vulnerable."

Amid such skepticism, Bush has retreated to mainly military settings to defend his policy. Yesterday's speech at the U.S. Naval Academy was his fourth before a military audience in three weeks.

But in subtle ways, he and the administration are adjusting the message to reflect Iraq realities.

No longer are they declaring that the insurgency is in its "last throes," as Cheney did last spring. Instead, they emphasize in their new strategy document that "it is not realistic to expect a fully functioning democracy, able to defeat its enemies" to be built in three years. And Bush acknowledged yesterday what U.S. military and intelligence experts have said for months, that terrorists make up the smallest group opposing coalition forces and that "ordinary Iraqis, mostly Sunni Arabs" represent "by far the largest group."

W. Patrick Lang, a former Defense Intelligence Agency expert on Iraqi affairs, said that Bush's language "changes the frame of reference," because the president acknowledged "for the first time this is essentially an Iraqi insurrection." Lang said Bush's previous emphasis on the foreign makeup of the insurgency "made it impossible for U.S. forces to deal with the enemy because we needed to defeat them totally." Now, Lang suggested, U.S. military officers have room to try to work out deals with Iraqi opposition fighters.

Staff writers Robin Wright and Walter Pincus contributed to this report.


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