Bush Moves to Bolster Support for U.S. War Effort

"The decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision early in my presidency . . . and it will forever be the right decision," President Bush said.
"The decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision early in my presidency . . . and it will forever be the right decision," President Bush said. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)
By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

NASHVILLE, March 11 -- President Bush on Tuesday opened his latest drive to shore up support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, emphasizing the stakes in battles that, he said, pit the United States and its allies against a remorseless enemy with little regard for human life.

Over the next several months, Bush must decide how many troops in the two major theaters of U.S. military operations to leave his successor, a decision that could influence the fall elections and help shape his legacy. On Iraq, Bush indicated Tuesday, he will be guided solely by his determination of the troop strength necessary to maintain stability.

"The politics of 2008 is not going to enter into my calculation. It is the peace of the years to come that will enter into my calculation," Bush told a friendly audience of religious radio and television broadcasters.

White House aides described Tuesday's speech as the first of several in the next few weeks aimed at building support for the decisions Bush will make after next month's assessment from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker. The speeches may also blunt some of the negative publicity likely to surround the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, on March 19.

The key question is whether Bush will reduce the U.S. troop level below the 130,000 projected to be in Iraq in July, roughly the same number who were there before he ordered a buildup in forces about a year ago.

Bush will also try to persuade European allies to deploy more troops to Afghanistan when he attends the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, next month.

Bush is weighing whether it is possible to withdraw troops from Iraq without losing what he regards as the major security gains of the past year. After years of political battles with Democrats in Congress, he probably has a free hand to keep as many troops as he likes in Iraq through the end of his tenure. He has resisted advisers who in recent weeks have been pressing him for a faster withdrawal.

The president made his comments before the Pentagon announced the resignation of the head of the U.S. Central Command, Adm. William J. Fallon, who has been reported to be in favor of a faster drawdown of forces from Iraq.

While he is anxious to maintain security, Bush would also like to rebuild some bipartisan consensus about military strategy after he leaves office and head off what he considers to be disastrous withdrawal plans being promoted by the Democratic presidential candidates, according to his advisers. Both Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) have said that, if elected president, they would move rapidly to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq.

Bush focused his Tuesday comments as much on the war in Afghanistan as on the war in Iraq, paying close attention to a conflict that his Democratic critics say he has ignored. Though offering mostly familiar rhetoric, Bush tried new language to convince his audience that the U.S. adversaries in both countries are evil.

"We saw the nature of this enemy when Taliban extremists invaded an Afghan school," Bush said. "They kidnapped six teachers. They beat the schoolchildren with sticks to scare them away from attending classes. We saw the nature of this enemy when extremists beheaded the principal of an Afghan high school and forced his wife and children to watch."

The president showed little self-doubt about the crucial choices he has made over the past five years, especially the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein. He has made this point before, but on Tuesday he appeared especially animated in declaring: "The decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision early in my presidency; it is the right decision at this point in my presidency; and it will forever be the right decision."

Such language received an enthusiastic response from attendees of the National Religious Broadcasters Convention. "You saw it. You heard it," said James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, referring to the warm applause for many of Bush's words from the roughly 1,500 people gathered at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center.

But beyond his core supporters, Bush has been largely ineffective in moving public opinion on the Iraq war in recent years. Democrats appeared unenthusiastic about his new communications offensive.

"The president continues to define success downward," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "In Iraq, we've gone from drowning to treading water. That's better, but we can't keep doing it without putting a huge strain on our military and taking resources away from priorities at home and the war in Afghanistan."

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