By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 20, 2008
President Bush sought yesterday to convince a skeptical public that the United States is on the cusp of winning the war in Iraq, arguing in a speech at the Pentagon that the recent buildup of U.S. forces has stabilized that country and "opened the door to a major strategic victory in the war on terror."
Vice President Cheney said separately that it does not matter whether the public supports a continued U.S. presence in Iraq, and he likened Bush's leadership to that of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.
After a reporter cited polls showing that two-thirds of Americans oppose the Iraq war, Cheney responded: "So?"
"I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls," he added in an interview in Oman with ABC News. "There has in fact been fundamental change and transformation and improvement for the better."
The confident remarks came on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, marking a concerted effort by the administration to highlight progress at a time when most Americans remain opposed to the venture.
The anniversary prompted new attacks against Bush by Democrats and sparring among the three senators running to replace him. It also thrust Iraq back into the center of the Washington debate after it was overshadowed for months by the presidential campaign and economic turmoil.
Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) sharply criticized Bush for his handling of the war. Obama, speaking a day after delivering a widely watched speech on race relations, also sharpened his attacks on Clinton and GOP nominee John McCain (Ariz.), casting them as political opportunists who made the wrong call by voting to authorize the war.
"There is a security gap in this country -- a gap between the rhetoric of those who claim to be tough on national security and the reality of growing insecurity caused by their decisions," Obama said in Fayetteville, N.C.
While wrapping up a two-day visit to Israel, McCain echoed Bush's message, saying that "America and our allies stand on the precipice of winning a major victory against radical Islamic extremism." McCain campaign adviser Mark Salter characterized Obama as a national security neophyte who engages in "foolish supposition" about the dangers of withdrawing from Iraq.
Congressional Democrats have seized on the anniversary to launch a broad assault on the Bush administration. They lined up yesterday to criticize Bush's claims, particularly his assertion that the war has been worth the cost and has decreased the risk of terrorism.
"Even as we begin the sixth year of this war, all the president seems able to offer Americans is more of the same perpetual disregard for the costs and consequences of stubbornly staying the course in Iraq," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.).
Bush's remarks, delivered to employees at the Pentagon, signaled a revival of the bold and optimistic rhetoric the administration regularly employed during the early years of the war. The president and his aides had largely abandoned such sweeping declarations of success over the past two years, as the carnage on the ground increased and public approval of the war plummeted.
Bush said an increase of about 30,000 combat troops over the past year has helped "turn the situation in Iraq around" and has made worthwhile the "high cost in lives and treasure." He said he will reject any further troop withdrawals if they threaten security improvements. "The challenge in the period ahead is to consolidate the gains we have made and seal the extremists' defeat," Bush said.
His remarks came just weeks before a key assessment of the war from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, after which the president will make a decision on troop levels. Bush has so far outflanked attempts by Democrats in Congress to force more withdrawals, and he appears unlikely to lose his political advantage for the remainder of his term.
The number of troops in Iraq, currently nearly 160,000, is slated to drop to about 140,000 by July, which would be near the level of a year ago, when Bush ordered the troop buildup to tamp down spiraling violence.
Bush took aim at Democrats such as Clinton and Obama, both of whom have vowed to quickly withdraw troops, and also disputed "exaggerated estimates" of the war's cost. One widely noted calculation by a Nobel Prize-winning economist puts the conflict's long-term price tag at $3 trillion or more.
"War critics can no longer credibly argue that we're losing in Iraq, so now they argue the war costs too much," Bush said. "No one would argue that this war has not come at a high cost in lives and treasure, but those costs are necessary when we consider the cost of a strategic victory for our enemies in Iraq."
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) responded by sending a letter to Bush complaining that the administration has refused to provide transparent or accurate cost information to Congress.
In one disputed portion of his address, Bush resurrected assertions that Osama bin Laden and his followers have played a central role in the Iraq conflict. Bush suggested that a backlash among local Sunni Muslims to the group calling itself al-Qaeda in Iraq amounted to "the first large-scale Arab uprising against Osama bin Laden, his grim ideology and his terror network."
Many terrorism experts say there are few operational contacts between bin Laden's group and its Iraqi namesake, and they note that the group was formed only after the U.S. invasion in March 2003. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is also considered a relatively small player in the constellation of insurgent forces battling U.S. and Iraqi forces, according to military, terrorism and intelligence experts.
Paul R. Pillar, a retired senior CIA analyst who has been sharply critical of the Bush administration's run-up to the Iraq war, said much of Bush's speech "could have been taken out of a speech five years ago."
"The rhetoric we hear in this speech is remarkably similar to the rhetoric we were hearing at the start," said Pillar, who helped prepare CIA intelligence estimates that warned of the violence that would follow the invasion. "The same case is being made for sustaining a presence in Iraq as was made to go into Iraq in the first place."
Cheney, who is traveling in the Middle East, has issued bold assertions of progress in Iraq in recent days. During an unannounced visit to Baghdad on Monday, Cheney declared that the U.S. effort to install democracy and stabilize Iraq is a "successful endeavor" that has been "well worth the effort." Cheney also reiterated his contention, disputed by most experts, that al-Qaeda and then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had close ties.
In his ABC interview, Cheney compared the Bush administration's task in Iraq to Lincoln's determination during the Civil War. "He never would have succeeded if he hadn't had a clear objective, a vision for where he wanted to go, and he was willing to withstand the slings and arrows of the political wars in order to get there," he said of Lincoln.
Cheney also answered "no" when asked whether he cares what Americans think of the war, suggesting that the administration cannot bow to "fluctuations" in the polls.
Surveys show relatively little fluctuation in U.S. public opinion on the war. Majorities have said since late 2004 that the war's benefits have not been worth its costs, according to Washington Post-ABC News polls.
In the latest poll, nearly two-thirds said the war was not worth fighting. Fewer than half -- 43 percent -- think the United States is making significant progress restoring civil order in Iraq, but that number is up from 31 percent before Bush's troop increase began. Only 32 percent approve of the overall job Bush is doing as president, tying his low in Post-ABC polling.
Staff writers Josh White in Washington and Shailagh Murray in Fayetteville and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.