After more than a week of increasingly harsh rhetoric, President Bush sought Sunday to tone down the raging debate on Iraq and offered an olive branch to the pro-military Democratic lawmaker condemned by the White House last week for turning against the war.
Summoning reporters between meetings with Chinese leaders here, Bush said he welcomed the political battle over the war as a "worthy debate" and rejected attempts to question the patriotism of those who oppose it. He also said he did not want the bitter conflict to degenerate into a partisan showdown.
"People should feel comfortable about expressing their opinions about Iraq," the president said. "I heard somebody say, well, maybe so-and-so is not patriotic because they disagree with my position. I totally reject that thought. This is not an issue of who's [a] patriot and who's not patriotic. It's an issue of an honest, open debate about the way forward in Iraq."
Without being asked, Bush praised Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a decorated Vietnam War veteran and hawkish legislator who last week declared that the Iraq situation had become so bad that the United States needs to immediately withdraw troops.
"Congressman Murtha is a fine man, a good man, who served our country with honor and distinction as a Marine in Vietnam and as a United States congressman," Bush said. "He is a strong supporter of the United States military. And I know the decision to call for an immediate withdrawal of our troops by Congressman Murtha was done in a careful and thoughtful way. I disagree with his position."
Meanwhile, the debate continued on Sunday morning television, where Murtha described his views in detail, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld appeared on four talk shows to rebut them.
In an interview with Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press," the congressman was conciliatory in tone, but, if anything, even more emphatic about what he views as the futility of U.S. military operations in Iraq.
"I hoped we'd open the door for him [Bush] to start a dialogue about how we change the course. . . . I'm very hopeful that my proposal is something they'll take seriously, that he'll get a few of us to the White House and talk to us about this very difficult problem," Murtha said.
But he then went on to say: "I'm absolutely convinced that we're making no progress at all. . . . Until we turn it over to the Iraqis, we're going to continue to do the fighting. . . . They'll have to work this out themselves. . . . We have become the enemy; 80 percent of the people in Iraq want us out of there; 45 percent say it's justified to attack Americans. It's time to change direction."
The tenor of Bush's remarks contrasted sharply with the White House message since the president left for Asia a week ago. Bush, Vice President Cheney, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and various other senior officials have waged what a top aide called a "sustained" campaign intended to counterattack Democrats who have been criticizing the president's conduct of the war.
The Bush team accused congressional Democrats of hypocrisy for accusing him of skewing prewar intelligence because the same Democrats also had thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction before the invasion in March 2003. In questioning the justification for the war, Bush and his lieutenants said, the Democrats were undermining troop morale and sending a message of weakness to the enemy.
Perhaps the most striking moment came after Murtha's proposal. The White House assailed Murtha, likening him to liberal maverick filmmaker Michael Moore, characterizing him as a newfound ally of the "extreme liberal wing" of his party and accusing him of wanting to "surrender to the terrorists."
Such a direct attack on a member of Congress is more typically delivered by the Republican National Committee, not on White House stationery, and the tone only grew angrier the next day on the House floor when a freshman Republican suggested Murtha was a coward.
Bush appeared to be trying to ratchet back the dialogue to a more civil plane Sunday. "This is a debate worthy of our country," he said. "It's an important debate. It does not have to be a partisan issue. Fine Democrats like Senator Joe Lieberman share the view that we must prevail in Iraq."
At the same time, he rejected Murtha's rhetoric. The congressman scoffed at attacks from those who received multiple deferments in the Vietnam War, a reference to Cheney. "I don't think the vice president's service is relevant in this debate," Bush said. "And I would hope all of us in this debate talk about the policy and have an honest, open debate about whether or not it makes sense to immediately withdraw our troops."
He added, "Those elected leaders in Washington who do not support our policies in Iraq have every right to voice their dissent. They also have a responsibility to provide a credible alternative. The stakes are too high and the national interest too important for anything otherwise."
In the lengthy NBC interview, Murtha criticized the administration for misjudging everything from the number of troops needed for postwar occupation to underestimating the importance of the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
"They have been overly optimistic, illusionary about their policy. This is not a war of words; this is a real war where people are getting killed. Fifteen thousand people have been wounded and half of them are desperately wounded, blinded, without their arms," he said. "So this is a real war which we have to find a solution to. And since there's no progress, we've got to find a way to let the Iraqis take over."
On CNN's "Late Edition," Rumsfeld called Murtha "a fine person," but added that "just as everyone can say what they want, we also have to think of what the words mean to the enemy."
Rumsfeld went on to say that "very little support went to Jack Murtha" after the congressman spoke out last week. "The Democrats didn't step up and support it, and Republicans didn't step up and support it. I think it's important for our troops to know that."
Brown reported from Washington.