Bush Brings More Realistic View of War to Forefront

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 19, 2005

The last time President Bush delivered a prime-time address from the Oval Office was the night he launched the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, back when he expected a decisive victory and gratitude from a liberated people. Thirty-three months and more than 2,100 U.S. fatalities later, Bush last night was still predicting victory -- but sounding a more subdued note.

As he stared again into the cameras from behind the 125-year-old presidential desk named Resolute, Bush this time found himself arguing with those who "conclude that the war is lost." The president who enjoyed strong public support as he fired the first missiles at Baghdad was by last night chastened by the subsequent travails on the battlefield abroad and the political freefall at home.

"This work has been especially difficult in Iraq -- more difficult than we expected," Bush acknowledged. "Reconstruction efforts and the training of Iraqi security forces started more slowly than we hoped. We continue to see violence and suffering, caused by an enemy that is determined and brutal, unconstrained by conscience or the rules of war."

For a president traditionally resistant to acknowledging miscues, such a concession amounts to a stark political change of course. As more of the country abandons him on Iraq, Bush has embarked on a campaign to bring the war back into the fold with a more realistic assessment of mistakes and of challenges ahead. Last night's national address from the Oval Office ended a two-week series of speeches by imploring the American people to stand behind him, to swallow their skepticism and take hope from last week's Iraqi election, to believe that a greater good will come from the sacrifice.

Bush addressed opponents of the war in a far more direct and, at moments, almost conciliatory manner, acknowledging that "this war is controversial" and saying he has heard those who disagree with him. "We will continue to listen to honest criticism, and make every change that will help us complete the mission," he said.

Yet as he signaled deference to their sincerity, he made clear he saw their approach as disastrous to the nation and he further drew a distinction "between honest critics who recognize what is wrong and defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right." And for all of the concessions, Bush signaled he has not changed his core beliefs, however disputed they may be, about the value of the war and its link to the larger campaign against radical Islamic terrorists.

The fresh approach, as it has played out over the past few weeks, has yielded Bush benefits in some quarters in Washington and may have helped fuel a modest uptick in his sagging poll ratings. "He's taken a step back, he's looked at his hole card," Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) said in an interview after meeting with the president last week. "He's grown as a leader."

Still, it may be too late to win back many who have lost faith. "When you tell a soldier to go take that hill, you come up with your mission and you tell them what you need to do to accomplish that mission, and you need to tell them clearly when that mission is ended," Army Maj. Tammy Duckworth, who was disabled in Iraq and plans to run for Congress as a Democrat, said on ABC's "This Week" yesterday. "Those decisions should have been made before we even sent troops over there. And they weren't."

The domestic political climate has changed so dramatically since Bush first sent troops to Iraq -- approval ratings that once topped 70 percent now hover around 40 percent -- that his whole approach to terrorism has come under fire. Perhaps emboldened by the falling support for the Iraq war, congressional critics are questioning secret overseas CIA prisons, moving to bar cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees, blocking for the moment reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act and threatening to investigate his order authorizing domestic surveillance of Americans without court warrants.

Just hours before last night's presidential speech, a key Senate Republican challenged Bush's surveillance program. "We can't become an outcome-based democracy," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "Even in a time of war, you have to follow the process because that's what a democracy is all about."

If Bush and his team are giving critics some due on Iraq, they remain undaunted on the domestic spying program. Animating the zeal in the White House to push the boundaries as far as they will stretch -- and perhaps further, at least in the view of critics -- is the sense that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, could happen all over again.

"What I'm concerned about . . . is that as we get farther and farther from 9/11 . . . we seem to have people less and less committed to doing everything that's necessary to defend the country," Vice President Cheney told ABC's "Nightline" during a trip to Iraq yesterday. "Somehow I think a lot of people have lost their sense of urgency out there. That's hard for me to do or for the president to do."

For that matter, Cheney seemed less eager than Bush to make concessions to Iraq critics. "I disagree with the notion that hopes have been dashed. I don't think that's true," he said. Asked about his prewar predictions that Iraqis would welcome U.S. forces, Cheney said: "I don't think I got it wrong. . . . I think the vast majority of them think of us as liberators."

The politics of Bush's two-front political battle are apparent at the White House. While the president's advisers worry deeply about public discontent over the war, they are still betting the American people are willing to give him virtual carte blanche to do what he thinks is necessary to prevent another Sept. 11, even if it means sacrificing some civil liberties. Bush struck a note of defiance when acknowledging the surveillance order on Saturday, and aides indicated they were eager to engage in a political fight with Democrats over it.

In contrast, on Iraq, the White House seems more intent these days on avoiding political conflict and managing expectations. In a recent interview, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said it was no surprise that it would take a long time to build a new Iraq after decades of tyranny. With the Sunni Arab minority only lately joining the political process, he added, "you couldn't have any real expectation that the violence would tamp down. It will take some months before you could expect to see some drop."

There seemed no drop as of yesterday. More than 30 people were killed in a series of suicide bombings and other attacks. For Bush, the images of such events sear deeper into the American consciousness than any Oval Office speech.

"This proves that the war is difficult," he said, "it does not mean that we are losing."

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