As He Touts a 'Way Forward,' Bush Admits Errors of the Past

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 11, 2007

As his reelection campaign geared up in 2004, President Bush was asked to name his biggest mistake. He couldn't think of one. By the time he was asked again last year, he had thought of one, his inappropriate "tough talk." Last night, Bush acknowledged that some of the most fundamental assumptions underlying the U.S. venture in Iraq were wrong.

The evolution tracks the sharp deterioration not only of the U.S. position in Iraq, but also of Bush's position at home. As he argued to send even more troops into a war that has lost public support, Bush labored to convince Congress and the American people that he understands where he went wrong and has learned from those errors.

"Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me," he told the nation. "It is clear that we need to change our strategy in Iraq." He added that generals have "reviewed the new Iraqi plan to ensure that it addressed these mistakes" and "they report that it does."

A chart released by the White House before Bush's "Way Forward" speech went even further, outlining a succession of basic assumptions made in the past about Iraq that as of yesterday it has disavowed -- including the notion that building a democracy would defuse the insurgency and bring down violence. It was the sort of chart Bush's critics might have put together, not a White House traditionally loath to admit mistakes.

Still, the president's admissions were calculated to advance his current political aims and came with significant limitations. He offered no regret for the March 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and still argued for staying in Iraq until the job is done. His tone was sober but came without apology or contrition. As one aide put it, "This is not a speech being given on bended knee."

But it was a speech being given arguably with his knees cut out from under him. The spiraling violence in Iraq has turned two-thirds of the American public against him, according to polls, and with Democrats now in charge of Congress, Bush appears increasingly isolated in Washington. Despite his post-election talk of bipartisanship, Bush chose a path almost guaranteed to generate open resistance even from within his own party. Republican officeholders who did stick with him last night appeared largely unenthusiastic.

"He's pretty much alone on this," said William S. Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine who served as defense secretary under President Bill Clinton. Bush had an opportunity to draw Democrats in by embracing at least some recommendations of the congressionally chartered Iraq Study Group, Cohen said: "It would buy you bipartisanship for five or six months. . . . By simply ignoring it and allowing it to die in the crib, so to speak, Democrats are now free agents."

To admirers, that is a virtue. "He's going to do what's in his heart of hearts and nobody can deter him from that course," said James Jay Carafano, a Heritage Foundation scholar. "He's never going to make everybody happy and he's not going to make even most people happy, and he shouldn't try. So the politics of this are going to suck, but he's going to do what he thinks he should do."

For some in the capital, the speech and the president's dilemma brought back haunting memories of another era. "The administration is making the same mistakes now that we made in Vietnam and I'm really sorry about that," said Jack J. Valenti, an aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson. "I learned in Vietnam when the public loses support for a war, forget about it -- it's all over."

Harry McPherson recalled the March 1968 speech he wrote that shifted the direction of the war and that Johnson used to end his reelection bid. Like then, McPherson said, there are no good options. "Many of the same consequences are being bruited about. What happens if we pull out of there? What happens if they win in Iraq? What happens to American prestige in the world? That's what we talked about all the time." While the Iraq war was "a gigantic mistake," he said, "there is a big cost to leaving."

The White House recognized that a speech will not convert critics. "Nobody is under illusions that the public is going to be turned around on this," said the Bush aide, who was not authorized to speak on the record. "What you hope to accomplish with a speech like this is to show the public that there is a genuine, deep and fundamental change and there's a good chance of success."

To make the case that he has embraced fundamental change, Bush had to concede mistakes in a more meaningful way. For the past year or so, he has acknowledged that tactics were flawed but not core decisions. Asked about mistakes at a joint news conference last year, British Prime Minister Tony Blair cited the purge of tens of thousands of members of Hussein's Baath Party from the Iraqi government, one of the most consequential moves after the invasion. Bush, by contrast, said he should not have taunted insurgents by declaring, "Bring 'em on."

Bush went further in his analysis last night. The plan to secure Baghdad, he said, "failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents." He also agreed with Blair that de-Baathification went too far.

In the speech, Bush did not dwell on these mistakes, but the White House elaborated in the chart comparing past "key assumptions" with current ones, showing how its understanding of Iraq has changed. In the past, the chart said, the White House believed "political progress will help defuse the insurgency." But now it has concluded that "political and economic progress are unlikely absent a basic level of security." In the past, the White House assumed the "majority of Iraqis will support the Coalition and Iraqi efforts to build a democratic state." Now, it said, "Iraqis [are] increasingly disillusioned with Coalition efforts."

The chart went on to say that the White House wrongly assumed that dialogue with insurgent groups would reduce violence, that other countries in the region have a strategic interest in a stable Iraq and that Iraqi security forces were gaining strength to handle threats. Now, it said, dialogue has not worked, Arab states have not fully supported the Iraqi government and many Iraqi forces are "not yet ready to handle" the security threat.

Bush must now make the case that those new assumptions are more valid than the last and that his plan will address them. "To be persuasive, President Bush needs to show what specific results an escalation will achieve and when," said Anthony Lake, who was one of Clinton's national security advisers. "And his problem is, he will then be held accountable for those results."

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