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President Tries to Win Over a War-Weary Nation
"People see him as less trustworthy because things are not going very well," said Pew center director Andrew Kohut.
In his speeches, Bush has advanced several arguments, starting with the proposition that the United States is engaged in a long-term ideological struggle between forces of freedom and Islamic radicals who want to destroy freedom. Although U.S. adversaries come from different backgrounds -- ranging from radical Sunnis in al-Qaeda to Shiite militants such as Hezbollah -- Bush has characterized the opposition as forming a single movement, "a worldwide network of radicals that use terror to kill those that stand in the way of their totalitarian ideology."
"That's is an oversimplification of the task of dealing with the tactic [terrorism] that is used by many different groups, with many different ideologies," countered Paul R. Pillar, a former top CIA analyst and the author of a respected book on terrorism. "It leads to a misunderstanding of the need of what is in fact a different counterterrorist policy for each groups and state we are dealing with. . . . Hamas is an entirely different entity than al-Qaeda. . . . Their objectives are very much different."
Bush this week reiterated his four-year-old argument that Iraq is a central front in the broader struggle against Islamic terrorism. Premature withdrawal, he asserted, could make Iraq what Afghanistan was before the Sept. 11 attacks, an incubator for al-Qaeda. To support the point, he has noted not only the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq but, as on some earlier occasions, the words of al-Qaeda leaders themselves. In his speech last week to the Military Officers Association of America, Bush quoted Osama bin Laden as describing the war in Iraq as "a war of destiny between infidelity and Islam."
Daniel Benjamin, a U.S. counterterrorism official in the Clinton administration who has written extensively about the subject, said efforts to defeat the radical Islamist ideology have been undermined by the Iraq invasion.
"There is no acknowledgment that because we have inadvertently confirmed their claims -- that we seek to occupy Muslim lands, as we have in Iraq -- the ideology is spreading and undermining our efforts," Benjamin said.
Bush's speeches have been sprinkled with what critics regard as factually questionable assertions -- adding to what even some allies have described as a credibility problem for the White House.
In discussing proposed new rules for trying terrorism suspects at the Guantanamo Bay prison, Bush last week said flatly that "the United States does not torture." That may have been the White House interpretation, but the CIA has approved tactics -- "water-boarding," for example, in which interrogators simulate drowning -- that many military and international lawyers consider outside legal boundaries.
Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said Bush retains the unique capacity to lead the nation through the commemoration of the 2001 attacks. "The speeches he's given have been meticulously crafted to avoid any obvious political message," he said. "But seen in an overall way, they reinforce in the mind of people his uniqueness as president and the fact that we're still in a dangerous situation, and in times of danger people inevitably rally behind the president."
The White House is hoping this analysis is right. "Public opinion is not going to change overnight, and we understood that going into these speeches," Bartlett said. "But that doesn't lessen his responsibility as the leader of this country in a time of war to carefully explain the conduct and developments of this war."