A day after the formation of an interim government in Iraq, President Bush said Wednesday that the effort to defeat terrorists in the Middle East is the epicenter of a global "clash of political visions" that echoes World War II and other epic 20th-century struggles against totalitarianism in Europe.
In a commencement address at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Bush said, "We are denying the terrorists the ideological victories they seek by working for freedom and reform in the broader Middle East."
The speech was at once a plea for patience with the escalating violence and faltering reconstruction efforts in Iraq -- and a sober warning about the ongoing fight against terrorism. Bush did not lay out concrete new policies but essentially provided a framework for a U.S. foreign policy after the conflict subsides.
"Overcoming terrorism and bringing greater freedom to the nations of the Middle East is the work of decades," Bush said. During the past three years, he said, "we've seen terrorist violence in an arc from Morocco to Spain to Turkey to Russia to Uzbekistan to Pakistan to India to Thailand to Indonesia. Yet the center of the conflict, the platform for their global expansion, the region they seek to remake in their image is the broader Middle East."
At a time when support for Bush's handling of Iraq has eroded to an all-time low among U.S. voters and the administration is asking the United Nations to adopt a new resolution on Iraq, the president used Wednesday's speech to try to counteract criticism that his policies have fomented greater violence.
He contended that peace and democracy in Iraq are emerging at a satisfactory pace by drawing parallels with the course of events in Europe following World War II. During the first four years of the Cold War in the 1940s, Bush said, communists threatened civil wars in Turkey and Greece, Berlin was blockaded and the Soviet Union exploded a nuclear weapon. Yet ultimately, he said, freedom has prevailed. By comparison, he said, "We are now about three years into the war against terrorism. . . . This is no time for impatience and self-defeating pessimism."
The 47-minute address was the second in a series of what the White House is billing as major speeches on Iraq to build political support at home and abroad as the administration prepares to transfer limited sovereignty on June 30 to the country it has occupied for 15 months. Nine days ago, Bush delivered a prime-time speech at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, in which he repackaged his objectives for Iraq into a five-point plan and called for the destruction of the Baghdad prison that has been the scene of abuse of Iraqis by U.S. military guards.
Wednesday's address also previewed themes he will carry on a trip to Europe that begins Thursday and a meeting of the G-8 nations in Sea Island, Ga., next week.
Campaigning in Florida, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) questioned Bush's assertion that Iraq is a main front of the war on terrorism. Noting that the war is being fought in 60 countries, Kerry said the only reason Iraq is part of it is because of what Bush did. "I think that's once again misleading America, frankly, and I think the war on terror is a global war," he said.
Kerry offered grudging praise to the president for working more directly with the United Nations during the transition to a new government in Iraq. But he urged Bush to use his upcoming European trip to "exercise the statesmanship necessary" to bring other nations into the reconstruction and stabilization of that country. "It is vital that we get other countries to commit resources and troops, boots on the ground, to the mission in Iraq," Kerry told reporters.
Kerry dismissed the administration's contention that it has been actively seeking additional military support, saying, "The administration has steadfastly refused to transfer to that international authority responsibility for reconstruction and for the actual decision-making about the transformation itself."
Since taking office, Bush has used his yearly commencement addresses at the nation's military academies to set forth major themes of his defense and foreign policy. At the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in 2001, he presented his vision for a post-Cold War military that called for streamlined and more nimble armed forces. At West Point in 2002, he laid out the doctrine of preemption that has been the central underpinning of the administration's foreign policy and led to the war in Iraq.
Bush's address here, before an audience of 29,000 in a stadium at the foot of the Rockies, was, in a sense, a sequel to those speeches. He reiterated his belief that "the best way to protect America is to stay on the offensive." And he told the 981 graduating cadets that future conflicts will require "the swift and able transformed military you will help to build and lead."
But he went further, trying to define what he views as the future of U.S. foreign policy in broad, philosophical terms. Bush said that, in the current generation of terrorists, "we hear the echoes of other enemies at other times -- that same swagger and demented logic of the fanatic." Yet he said today's enemies are dissimilar in other ways, because they have not taken over a major country or mounted standing armies, operating instead to "demoralize free nations with dramatic acts of murder."
During his speech, he cited former president Ronald Reagan, an al Qaeda spokesman involved in this spring's bombings in Madrid and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in the days before the Normandy invasion.
The fight against terrorism is "a global conflict that will define your careers," Bush told the cadets. "Fighting this kind of enemy is a complex mission that will require all your skill and resourcefulness."
The Air Force Academy was the site of a sexual abuse scandal last year following revelations that its senior leaders had criticized and disciplined female cadets who had reported being raped by fellow students, while their attackers were not punished. In the aftermath, Air Force Secretary James G. Roche dismissed the academy's four senior officials. On Wednesday, Bush alluded to the scandal, thanking the new superintendent for "helping to restore the academy's tradition of honor, which applies to every man and woman, without exception."
Most of his remarks, however, projected optimism. "This conflict will take many turns with setbacks on the course to victory," he said. "We have seen freedom arrive, on waves of unstoppable progress, to nations in Latin America and Asia and Africa and Eastern Europe. Now freedom is stirring in the Middle East, and no one should bet against it."
Staff writer Dan Balz, traveling with Kerry, contributed to this report.