By Holly Watt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008
ORLANDO, Aug. 20 -- President Bush reiterated his demand that Russia remove its forces from Georgia in a speech here Wednesday, stating that the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are part of the former Soviet republic and that "the United States will work with our allies to ensure Georgia's independence and territorial integrity."
Condemning Russia for its "disproportionate response to a long-simmering conflict," Bush reiterated his call for all forces to return to their Aug. 6 positions. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has said most of the troops would leave by Friday, although Russian authorities have said their peacekeepers must remain because of prior commitments.
Speaking to a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention here, Bush praised Georgia's Rose Revolution of 2003, when the former government was deposed peacefully and President Mikheil Saakashvili took power, as "one of the most inspiring chapters in history."
Bush emphasized Georgia's role in the campaign against terrorism, reminding the audience that the East European nation sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. "Georgia stood for freedom around the world," he said. "Now the world must stand for freedom in Georgia."
Bush's comments underscored the continuing difficulty the United States has had in compelling Russia to withdraw forces from Georgia. Bush did not specify what Washington and its allies would do to uphold Georgian sovereignty over the breakaway regions, both of which are controlled by Moscow-backed separatists with the support of Russian peacekeeping troops.
In a briefing on Air Force One en route here, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said there were "early signs of some withdrawal" from Georgia by Russian forces. But he added, "It is not significant, and it needs to increase."
On Wednesday the president also appraised his administration's efforts in two key arenas of foreign and domestic policy: the battle against terrorism and the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Bush warned that future leaders "must remember that the war on terror will be won on the offense, and that is where our military must stay." Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) spoke before the VFW convention earlier this week, clashing over foreign policy.
The president counseled constant vigilance, highlighting the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Some of the attackers were jailed, Bush said, "but eight years later, al-Qaeda terrorists came back to finish the job."
"We defended America," Bush said, "and laid the foundation of peace for generations to come."
Speaking before a sympathetic crowd of about 4,000 veterans who offered the president several standing ovations, Bush praised the build-up of U.S. forces in Iraq last year. "Some back in Washington said the war was lost. They were willing to give up on the mission," he said. "They were willing to leave a struggling democracy to its own fate."
Leaving Florida, which was being battered by Tropical Storm Fay, Bush flew to New Orleans to mark three years since Hurricane Katrina struck that city. The administration's response to the disaster was widely criticized at the time, but speaking at the Jackson Barracks, a site that was flooded in 2005, Bush focused on what he called the city's "incredible progress." He cited $126 billion in federal assistance and the repair of 220 miles of levees.
"There are people hurting . . . people waiting to get back in their home, wondering whether a brighter day is possible," Bush said. "Yet a brighter day is coming."
Staff writers Michael Abramowitz and William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.