President Gives Both Reassurance, Warnings on Iraq
Monday, December 19, 2005
President Bush last night hailed Thursday's Iraqi elections as a vital step toward stabilizing that nation, but warned that despite the political progress more violence lies ahead as Iraq struggles to establish a democracy amid a raging insurgency.
Speaking in a nationally televised prime-time address, Bush made a direct appeal to war opponents, conveying a more humble tone in saying he understands their arguments but asserting that there is no choice but to forge on. "I have heard your disagreement and I know how deeply it is felt," Bush said. "Yet now there are only two options before our country: victory or defeat."
The speech also included his most forthright statement to date about how often Iraq has confounded his own expectations, from weapons of mass destruction that were not found to the problems of reconstructing a civil society in Iraq. "Much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong. And as your president, I am responsible for the decision to go into Iraq," he said. "Yet it was right to remove Saddam Hussein from power."
The 17-minute address capped an intense campaign in recent weeks by the White House to recast the Iraq debate, at a time when rising public skepticism threatens to overwhelm his presidency. Over the past three weeks, Bush has released a new plan for victory, hosted private White House briefings for skeptical members of Congress and delivered four other speeches laying out a more detailed explanation of his war strategy, 33 months after U.S. forces first invaded.
Despite the U.S. death toll -- which is approaching 2,200 -- and widespread skepticism about the war on Capitol Hill and with citizens across in the country, Bush said the United States is making steady gains in Iraq, and suggested that these will lead to troop reductions in the year ahead.
"Some look at the challenges in Iraq and conclude that the war is lost, and not worth another dime or another day," Bush said. "I don't believe that. Our military commanders don't believe that. Our troops in the field, who bear the burden and make the sacrifice, do not believe that America has lost. And not even the terrorists believe it."
Even as he struck a more deferential tone, Bush sought to put his political adversaries on the defensive, saying that "defeatism may have its partisan uses, but it is not justified by the facts."
He also repeated his warning against a rapid withdrawal from Iraq, saying that "to retreat before victory would be an act of recklessness and dishonor -- and I will not allow it." The carnage from roadside bombs and suicide attacks by insurgents in Iraq does not constitute defeat, he added: "This proves that the war is difficult -- it does not mean that we are losing."
Earlier in the day, Vice President Cheney made an unannounced trip to Iraq, keeping it secret even from Iraq's prime minister, who did not know the vice president would be there until walking into a meeting and finding Cheney waiting for him. Cheney's visit occurred against the backdrop of renewed violence, as more than 30 people died in suicide bombings and other attacks since Saturday night.
Visiting with U.S. troops, Cheney -- who in May said the insurgency in Iraq was in its "last throes" -- said that "remarkable" progress is being made there. "I think we've turned the corner, if you will," he said in response to a question from a Marine corporal. "I think when we look back from 10 years hence, we'll see that the year '05 was in fact a watershed year here in Iraq."
Officials traveling with Cheney called it a coincidence that his first visit to Iraq since the fall of Hussein in April 2003 occurred on the same day as Bush's speech. "It just worked out that way," a senior administration said.
Nonetheless, it is clear that the White House hopes the success of Iraq's parliamentary election, particularly in drawing the country's embittered Sunni minority to the polls, proves to be a turning point in the difficult war. Bush was uncharacteristically contrite in his remarks, as he appealed for continued patience from the American people in coming months.