'Learning as We Go'

Thursday, May 29, 2008

COLORADO SPRINGS, May 28 -- President Bush acknowledged that his administration is "learning as we go" in building democracy in Iraq, as he used his final military academy commencement address on Wednesday to ruminate on some lessons from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bush spoke to graduates of the Air Force Academy on a day when he was buffeted by criticism of his drive for war, this time by former aide Scott McClellan. Bush ignored the controversy, instead seeking parallels in past battles against fascism and communism and requesting patience.

"One challenge is that in the past, in Germany and Japan, the work of rebuilding took place in relative quiet," Bush told the thousand graduates and their families. "Today, we're helping emerging democracies rebuild under fire from terrorist networks and state sponsors of terror. This is a difficult and unprecedented task -- and we're learning as we go."

He noted that in Iraq "we learned from hard experience" that political and economic progress is hard without first establishing "some measure of security."

As a result, he said, the United States changed its strategy, sending more troops to help secure Baghdad and reduce sectarian violence.

Bush also noted that defining success is more complex than it was in World War II. "In the past, that was relatively easy to do," he said. "There were public surrenders, a signing ceremony on the deck of a battleship, victory parades in American cities. Today, when the war continues after the regime has fallen, the definition of success is more complicated."

Bush speaks every spring at one of the service academies. His address Wednesday, under a cold drizzle at the football stadium here, offered familiar rhetoric about the "war on terror," though with a nod to realities that have made the Iraq and Afghanistan wars more protracted than his administration had once expected. He described the effort as a "battle of wills" and said loss will come only "if we defeat ourselves."

-- Michael Abramowitz

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