As Iraq Situation Varies, Bush Sticks With Encouraging Words

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 29, 2007

RENO, Nev., Aug. 28 -- A year ago, President Bush came before the American Legion convention and assured his audience of veterans that the early results of a plan to strengthen security in Baghdad were "encouraging." Within a few months, U.S. officials were acknowledging that the plan had collapsed and sectarian violence in Iraq was veering out of control.

Bush came before the same group Tuesday morning here and offered another upbeat message about the U.S. campaign to bring security to the country. "Our new strategy is showing results in terms of security," he said. "Our forces are in the fight all over Iraq."

On the eve of a critical administration assessment next month of military and political progress in Iraq, Bush is stepping up his case for keeping additional U.S. forces in the country. However, Democrats and Iraq experts say that Bush's proposals will face a steep hurdle because many of his predictions of success have not materialized.

Even among some in the largely sympathetic crowd here, worries have emerged over Bush's enduring optimism.

"His credibility went way down" after past predictions fell short, said Dave Rehbein, a Vietnam War-era veteran attending the convention. But Rehbein, from Ames, Iowa, took comfort in the fact that congressional Democrats and others who have recently visited Iraq are returning with more favorable views.

The president "certainly has a hurdle to overcome because of his consistently optimistic statements, not just with regard to the surge but over a period of several years," said former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), who co-chaired the Iraq Study Group. "Whatever he says is going to be met with a great deal of scrutiny and, in some quarters, cynicism."

Administration officials counter that Bush has been careful for some time to temper claims of progress with caveats that it is too early for a definitive assessment.

"When talking about the progress our troops are making in Iraq, the president consistently includes an unvarnished assessment of the conditions on the ground," White House communications director Kevin F. Sullivan said.

In his address Tuesday to thousands of Legionnaires attending their national convention, Bush seemed especially effusive in touting security gains from the additional 30,000 troops he sent to Baghdad in January -- even as he urged Congress once again to reserve judgment until it hears another assessment next month from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker.

"The momentum is now on our side," Bush said. "The surge is seizing the initiative from the enemy -- and handing it to the Iraqi people."

Bush portrayed the Middle East as caught between the Sunni extremism of al-Qaeda and the Shiite extremism of the Iranian government. He saved some of his most belligerent language for Iran, accusing Tehran of obstructing progress in Iraq, funding terrorists around the world, supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and pursuing technology that could put the region under "the shadow of a nuclear holocaust."

"Iran's actions threaten the security of nations everywhere, and that is why the United States is rallying friends and allies around the world to isolate the regime, to impose economic sanctions," Bush said. "We will confront this danger before it is too late."

Bush's comments were another indication that he plans to try to keep the additional troops in Iraq after Petraeus and Crocker deliver their report. With the Iraqi government almost certain to fall short of many of the political benchmarks Congress mandated when it agreed to fund the war for the rest of the fiscal year, Bush in recent weeks has gradually tried to shift the terms of the debate.

The administration originally embraced the idea that the additional troops would provide greater security and breathing space so that the Iraqi government could fashion an enduring political settlement. Meeting the benchmarks would be a sign of progress.

Bush also said in his speech that the Iraqi government must work harder on the benchmarks, but suggested that they are an imperfect measure of progress. Some of the goals, he said, are effectively being met without legislation. He said, for instance, that the Iraqi government is sharing oil revenue throughout the country's provinces even though a formal oil law has not been passed.

"It makes no sense to respond to military progress by claiming that we have failed because Iraq's parliament has yet to pass every law it said it would," Bush said.

He drew chuckles by comparing the fledgling Iraqi government to its U.S. counterpart. "Even we can't pass a budget on time -- and we've had 200 years of practice," he joked.

But Bush's perspective is drawing skepticism from Democrats, many experts on Iraq and some in his own government. Some who follow the conflict closely say Bush is overstating the security gains, noting that even as violence is brought down in Baghdad and in Anbar province, it is rising elsewhere. The administration's own recent intelligence estimate was also pessimistic about the effectiveness of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government and its prospects for achieving national reconciliation.

Fueling the skepticism is Bush's track record as a prognosticator. He has often proclaimed "turning points" in Iraq -- such as the transfer of power to an Iraqi government and elections in 2005 -- only to be met with setbacks on the ground.

"There's still a lot of difficult work to be done in Iraq," Bush said at the end of 2005, "but thanks to the courage of the Iraqi people, the year 2005 will be recorded as a turning point in the history of Iraq, the history of the Middle East and the history of freedom."

"The history of this presidency has been to over-promise and under-perform," said Anthony H. Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The resulting expectations have often led Americans to feel like we are failing. From what I have seen to date, we are repeating the process."

Administration allies say the criticism is unfair. Peter D. Feaver, who recently left a senior job on the National Security Council, said the enemy is following the propaganda war over Iraq. "They will do what they can to discredit administration rhetoric by one-upping, if they can, any extravagant claims of progress," said Feaver, now a professor at Duke University. "The administration knows that and has gone to great lengths to avoid unqualified, uncaveated claims of progress."

Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report from Washington.

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