President Bush lashed out today at critics of his Iraq war policy, strongly denying any manipulation of prewar intelligence and accusing his detractors of sending "the wrong signal" to U.S. troops and America's enemies.
In a speech marking Veterans Day at the Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania, Bush pointed to bipartisan support for an October 2002 congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq and suggested that critics now were hypocritically refusing to "stand behind" U.S. troops fighting there.
Bush's speech, delivered against the backdrop of soldiers in uniform, immediately drew sharp criticism from Democrats.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) accused Bush of exploiting Veterans Day in "a campaign-like attempt to rebuild his own credibility by tearing down those who seek the truth about the clear manipulation of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war."
In a statement, Kennedy added, "Instead of providing open and honest answers about how we will achieve success in Iraq and allow our troops to begin to come home, the president reverted to the same manipulation of facts to justify a war we never should have fought."
Kennedy charged that Bush's speech "only further tarnished this White House and further damaged his presidency."
Bush's remarks came amid steadily falling job-approval ratings and growing public doubts about the president's honesty, according to recent polls. In an AP-Ipsos poll released today, only 37 percent of respondents approved of Bush's handling of his job as president, and the same percentage approved of his handling of Iraq. A minority of those polled described him as "honest" and "ethical," 42 percent and 47 percent, respectively, and 82 percent described him as "stubborn."
Much of Bush's address today was essentially the same speech he gave three times in October on the war on terrorism. But he departed from his previous remarks when he launched into a pointed rebuttal of recent criticism from Democratic leaders who charge that his administration twisted prewar intelligence to justify invading Iraq in March 2003.
"When I made the decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power, Congress approved it with strong bipartisan support," Bush said. He said critics who "didn't support the liberation of Iraq" have the right to express their views.
"While it's perfectly legitimate to criticize my decisions or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began," Bush added. "Some Democrats and antiwar critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people about why we went to war." He said a Senate investigation "found no evidence of political pressure" on U.S. intelligence assessments of Iraqi weapons programs.
In addition, Bush said, "intelligence agencies from around the world agreed with our assessment" of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, and the United Nations "passed more than a dozen resolutions citing his development and possession of weapons of mass destruction."
Bush said many of his critics supported his opponent in the 2004 election, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), whom he did not mention by name in today's speech. He cited Kerry's statement in support of the October 2002 resolution, noting that the senator said he considered Iraqi weapons of mass destruction a "grave threat" to U.S. security.
"That's why more than a hundred Democrats in the House and the Senate, who had access to the same intelligence, voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power," Bush said. "The stakes in the global war on terror are too high, and the national interest is too important, for politicians to throw out false charges. These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will.
"As our troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life, they deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send to them to war continue to stand behind them," Bush said to cheers from the assembled soldiers. "Our troops deserve to know that this support will remain firm when the going gets tough. And our troops deserve to know that . . . whatever our differences in Washington, our will is strong, our nation is united and we will settle for nothing less then victory."
In a statement, Kerry retorted: "I wish President Bush knew better than to dishonor America's veterans by playing the politics of fear and smear on Veterans Day. Instead of trying to salvage his slumping political fortunes, the commander in chief should honor our men and women in uniform with a clear strategy for success in Iraq."
Kerry charged, "This administration misled a nation into war by cherry-picking intelligence and stretching the truth beyond recognition. . . . Today, they continue the same games hoping Americans forget the mess they made in Iraq that's cost over 2,000 Americans their lives and their failure to find Osama bin Laden."
The 2002 congressional resolution cited by Bush referred to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and said Iraq threatened U.S. and international security because it continued "to possess and develop a significant chemical and biological weapons capability," was "actively seeking a nuclear weapons capability," and was "supporting and harboring terrorist organizations."
Subsequent investigations have shown that Iraq had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks, had no stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons and did not have an active nuclear weapons program.
The resolution did not mention Saddam Hussein or express a goal of removing him from power. Nor did it specifically refer to an invasion or occupation of Iraq. Instead, it authorized the president to use the U.S. military to "defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq" and to "enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions regarding Iraq."
In today's speech, Bush also sharpened his criticism of Iraq's neighbor to the west, Syria. After repeating past descriptions of Iran and Syria as "allies of convenience" of radical Islamic terrorists, Bush singled out Syria for taking "two disturbing steps" this week.
"First, it arrested Dr. Kamal Labwani for serving as an advocate for democratic reform," Bush said. "Then President [Bashar] Assad delivered a strident speech that attacked both the Lebanese government" and a U.N. investigation into the February assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. That investigation implicated top Syrian officials in the killing.
Bush called on Syria to "cooperate fully" with the U.N. investigation and to "stop trying to intimidate and destabilize the Lebanese government."
He added, "The government of Syria must stop exporting violence and start importing democracy."