President Bush asserted Monday that the war against Iraq has made America safer as he sought to counteract the findings in a Senate report late last week that the U.S. intelligence community distorted and exaggerated the weapons threat posed by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
"Although we have not found stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, we were right to go into Iraq," Bush said during a brief visit to east Tennessee. His remarks came amid fresh evidence that support for his Iraq policies continues to decline. A new Washington Post poll found that 45 percent of the public believes the war was worth fighting, compared with 49 percent in May and 57 percent a year ago.
Bush's remarks -- his most extensive on the Senate report -- represented an attempt to regain political footing on an issue that his advisers had expected to be a strong selling point in his reelection campaign but that has stirred public skepticism.
Confronted with unanimous findings by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that the administration had relied on unfounded intelligence in going to war, the president essentially sought to reframe the debate. Hussein's removal, he said, was part of a three-prong strategy for peace.
"We are defending the peace by taking the fight to the enemy," Bush said in a subtle reformulation of the idea of "preemption" that has been a centerpiece of his foreign policy since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "We have followed this strategy -- defending the peace, protecting the peace and extending the peace -- for nearly three years. We have been focused and patient, firm and consistent."
Bush said the administration's policies have not only benefited Iraq but also sowed positive change in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Libya. As a result, he said, "the American people are safer" -- a refrain he used seven times in a 32-minute speech.
He said the administration, which has been criticized at home and abroad for acting unilaterally and ignoring the wishes of allies, was "protecting the peace by working with friends and allies and international institutions to isolate and confront terrorists and outlaw regimes."
Meanwhile, Vice President Cheney accused Democratic rivals of "trying to rewrite history for their own political purposes" when they criticize the administration for going to war based on flawed intelligence.
Sens. John F. Kerry and John Edwards, the presumed Democratic presidential ticket, reviewed the same reports on Iraq that Bush received and supported the decision to go to war, Cheney said during an appearance in Bethlehem, Pa.
"Now it seems they've both developed a convenient case of campaign amnesia," he said during a fundraiser. "If the president was right -- and he was -- then they are simply trying to rewrite history for their own political purposes."
Kerry campaign spokesman Chad Clanton swiftly replied that Bush and Cheney "are the ones with amnesia."
"It's as if they've forgotten that their go-it-alone foreign policy has made America bear the overwhelming share of casualties and costs in Iraq," he said.
Bush delivered his latest defense of the Iraq war at a site that symbolizes one of the United States' only recent successes in persuading rogue nations peacefully to stop mass weapons programs. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory has become the repository for several shipments of components for manufacturing nuclear weapons sent by Libya. That country announced in December that it was abandoning its unconventional weapons programs, shortly after admitting its role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Before his remarks, the president toured a large shed containing wooden shipping crates. Inside were parts, including some needed to assemble gas centrifuges that can manufacture highly enriched uranium.
The Kerry campaign accused Bush of traveling here to create an erroneous impression that Libya's decision resulted from the Iraq war.
Kerry issued a statement saying Bush had not decreased the global nuclear threat, contrasting current administration policies with his own proposal "for dramatically reducing the threats from nuclear terrorism."
There are substantial differences of opinion over what motivated Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi to decide eight months ago to stop trying to develop nuclear weapons, allowing Western inspectors to verify its actions and agreeing to destroy some materials and ship others here to Oak Ridge. Inspectors have discovered that Libya's weapons program was disorganized, short of critical components and years away from producing weapons.
Many specialists say the decision grew out of diplomacy with the United States and Britain that began during the 1990s when Bill Clinton was president. Bush did not acknowledge that history on Monday, saying instead that the decision was the result of a determination of the United States, Britain and other allies to "expose the threats of terrorism and proliferation -- and oppose those threats with all our power."
The administration has been eager to show off the shipments of Libyan components. Bush's tour marked the first visit here by a U.S. president in a dozen years .
Bush sought to link Libya's decision to the work of U.S. intelligence officials, who have been badly bruised by the bipartisan report issued Friday. That report rebutted every major assessment about the state of Iraq's weapons program provided to Congress before it authorized the war.
Bush acknowledged what he called "some shortcomings" cited in the Senate report, but added: "Our intelligence sources do an essential job for America."
Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.