By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 1, 2006
SALT LAKE CITY, Aug. 31 -- President Bush renewed his effort to shore up flagging public support for fighting the Iraq war, appearing before one of the country's major veterans groups to cast the war as part of a larger ideological struggle against radical Islamic terrorism.
In an impassioned new statement of familiar White House themes, Bush described the war in Iraq as part of the same struggle that has pitted U.S. forces against the Taliban in Afghanistan, has found Israel battling Hezbollah militants in Lebanon and has involved the administration in a so-far unsuccessful diplomatic initiative to force Iran to give up activities that the White House thinks will lead to the development of a nuclear weapon by that Islamic republic.
"The war we fight today is more than a military conflict," Bush said Thursday. "It is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century."
Bush's speech here before thousands of mostly supportive veterans at the annual convention of the American Legion was the first in a series of addresses that White House officials hope will rally an electorate that polls indicate is tiring of the three-year war in Iraq. While others in his administration, including Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, have suggested unnamed critics may be appeasing terrorists, Bush said the detractors are simply mistaken.
"Many of these folks are sincere, and they're patriotic. But they could . . . not be more wrong," the president said. "If America were to pull out before Iraq can defend itself, the consequences would be absolutely predictable and absolutely disastrous."
He said a premature withdrawal of more than 130,000 U.S. troops would "be handing Iraq over to our worst enemies: Saddam's former henchmen, armed groups with ties to Iran and al-Qaeda terrorists from all over the world who would suddenly have a base of operations far more valuable than Afghanistan under the Taliban."
Bush also repeated his assertion that the advance of democracy will bring to power in the Middle East countries that oppose terrorism, although free elections in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories have given power to Hezbollah and Hamas, both deemed by the United States to be terrorist entities.
Judging by the applause, Bush's message that the fight against Islamic radicals is akin to the battle against the Nazis and Soviet communists resonated with the legionnaires.
"If we are willing to stay the course, we will win," said Bill Osborne, a Vietnam War-era veteran from Kansas. "Perseverance is the key. . . . A job half-finished is a job not worth starting."
Clancy Lux, another Vietnam War-era veteran from Florida, whose son is serving in the Marines in Iraq, said he is discouraged that more Americans do not see the war in Iraq the way Bush does. "People need to open their eyes -- he is on the right track," Lux said. "If we quit too early before we finish the job, we will lose."
The audience was not entirely supportive. Richard Witbart, a former schoolteacher and local official from Illinois who served in the Navy in World War II, said he believes the troops should be brought home and that the United States should not have invaded Iraq. "It just wasn't the right thing to do," he said. "We were not being attacked by Iraq."
Indeed, even in a state that provided Bush his largest percentage of the vote in 2004, his presence was polarizing. Rocky Anderson, the mayor of Salt Lake City and a fierce critic of the war, led an anti-Bush rally Wednesday that drew a crowd of several thousand to deliver a symbolic indictment of the president for failing to uphold the Constitution. For their part, White House aides organized a boisterous and friendly welcoming rally with Utah's largely Republican congressional delegation for when Bush stepped off Air Force One late Wednesday.
Although billed as a major address by his aides, Bush's speech Thursday employed rhetoric that has become a staple of his speeches on terrorism and Iraq. He said that if the country gives up the fight in Baghdad, "we will face the terrorists in the streets of our own cities."
He also repeated his mantra that the status quo in the Middle East before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks represented a false stability -- and that "the lack of freedom in the Middle East made the region an incubator for terrorist movements." Many Middle East experts believe that the war in Iraq has radicalized the region and spawned more terrorists.
Bush also described as "encouraging" the initial results of a new U.S.-Iraqi plan to provide security for Baghdad, which has been engulfed in sectarian violence in recent months. The plan, which involved the redeployment of thousands of troops to the capital, was widely deemed a failure at first, though U.S. commanders say they have seen improved security in recent weeks.
Bush also rejected the suggestion advanced by some experts on Iraq that the country has descended into civil war. "Our commanders and our diplomats on the ground in Iraq believe that's not the case," Bush said. "They report that only a small number of Iraqis are engaged in sectarian violence, while the overwhelming majority want peace and a normal life in a unified country."