By Dan Balz and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
President Bush's Oval Office speech last night was the culmination of two weeks of efforts to rally the nation behind his policies and presidency by summoning the memory of Sept. 11, 2001. Five years after that indelible day, however, this president's capacity to move the public is severely diminished.
There were echoes of the language and logic Bush invoked five years ago when he united a stricken nation looking to him for both comfort and leadership. But he was speaking to a different nation last night.
Setbacks in Iraq have soured a majority of Americans on that mission. Falsely optimistic predictions of progress have undermined the administration's credibility. A majority of Americans question fundamental elements of the president's argument, including his contention that Iraq is the central front in the campaign against terrorism.
Cumulatively, it leaves decidedly uncertain whether this week's flood of rhetoric and remembrance can alter Bush's perilous circumstances -- at a critical moment for the future of the Iraq mission and the president's own domestic standing 56 days before the midterm elections.
"The power of his rhetoric is in marked decline, and that's no reflection on the quality of what he says, which is still very high," said Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a neoconservative scholar who has been sympathetic to Bush's anti-terrorism policies. "There's a desire in the country for more deeds, not more words. . . . We are losing a war right now, and there is no way to get around that."
Three previous times in the past 18 months, as public opinion has slipped, White House officials have announced that Bush would embark on a renewed effort to explain and defend his Iraq and anti-terrorism policies. None produced a lasting positive effect on how Americans view either the president or his policies.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, provided Bush with many of the rhetorical high notes of his administration, from his bullhorn exhortation atop the rubble of Ground Zero three days after the attacks to the stern eloquence of his speech to Congress six days later in which he put the nation on the road to war.
With his five speeches in the past two weeks, including last night's, Bush has sought to use the fifth anniversary of those attacks to put the war in Iraq in a broader and more politically viable context while offering his interpretation of where the country stands in its long-term confrontation with terrorism.
White House officials are hopeful that the round of speeches will have some impact on moving public opinion. They said that Bush has presented an enormous amount of information and background about Iraq and terrorism, much of which they believe will come as news to many Americans with only a general impression of events.
"I am not so sure that the views [about the Iraq war and terrorism] are chiseled in stone," said White House press secretary Tony Snow. "There's been a lot of debate -- one side that may not have been fully represented in ours. . . . It seems that on a lot of things, people may not have fully understood the approach the president took and his thinking."
Both Snow and White House counselor Dan Bartlett singled out the effort to quote the terrorists' own words as a tactic they hope will break through to ordinary Americans who may not be aware of the terrorists' aims. "We may be having a debate in this country about whether Iraq is part of the war on terrorism, but our enemies believe it is," Bartlett said. "We were trying to transcend the political debate in Washington by letting the words of the enemies speak for themselves."
Polls show how the political ground has shifted over time. The Pew Research Center began charting early in Bush's presidency public confidence in his leadership. Bush enjoyed a solid majority until the summer of 2005, when the public was roughly divided. In February 2001, 60 percent of Americans said they saw Bush as trustworthy, compared with just 28 percent who did not. By last month, a majority, 52 percent, said they did not believe he was trustworthy.
"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."