Bush vows to stay course in Iraq

Dec. 7, 2005 at 8:14 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush took a tip from his role model Winston Churchill and offered a prospect of "tough days," "good days" and "bad days" ahead for the American people in Iraq in the coming months and years. But he said that in order to defeat terrorism it was necessary to stay the course there.

The president, whose approval ratings in recent months have been at record lows of 40 percent, devoted Wednesday's speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington to the next stage of the Iraq war.

It was the second of four speeches on the subject the president has mapped out. In the first, to midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. week ago, he unveiled his new National Strategy for victory in Iraq. Though widely criticized, it was also praised for presenting a far tighter focus on the central priority of training up large and reliable Iraqi forces that could fight the Sunni insurgency there and take the burden of doing so off the hard-pressed U.S. forces in the country.

In this second speech, the president continued his emphasis on the serious, substantive progress that, he said, U.S. and allied Iraqi forces have made in establishing security in most of the country.

Bush chose the 64th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to make his speech. Many have compared the impact of the Sept. 11, 2001, mega-terror attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center and mauled the Pentagon, killing 2,800 people, to that earlier surprise assault. The president in his speech drew the parallel that Pearl Harbor started a long struggle that required great sacrifice and staying power from the American people, just as the war in Iraq and the war on terror does today.

"Our nation pulled together and despite setbacks and battlefield defeats, we did not waver in freedom's cause," he said

And after Sept. 11, 2001, "when more Americans were lost than at Pearl Harbor," the president said, "... we accepted new responsibilities and we confronted new dangers with firm resolve."

In harking back to those dark days, the president was also referring to the defining and most acclaimed moment of his presidency, when he rallied the nation from the universal shock it felt at those attacks. The credibility he won in those days carried him to reelection in a year ago with more votes than any other president in American history has ever received. But since then a combination of bad news and casualties from Iraq, soaring energy prices and the flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina have eroded his credibility.

The president repeated his determination, expressed at Annapolis last week, for nothing less than "complete victory." He praised the "amazing progress" that the Iraqi people had made in the two and half years since U.S. forces toppled long-time dictator Saddam Hussein in a lightning three-week campaign.

And he said, in a rare, albeit indirect acknowledgement of past mistakes, that the United States had learned from previous failures in Iraq. "We have adjusted our approach," he said. Now, "more capable Iraqi security forces ... have been able to better hold onto the cities we cleared out together.

"This approach is working," the president said.

Bush focused on the cities of Najaf and Mosul, long bitterly contested with insurgent forces, as a showcase example of the success of the new approach.

"The Iraqi police are now responsible for security in Najaf. An Iraqi battalion has assumed control of the former American military base, and our forces are now about 40 minutes outside the city," he said.

The president did not address the security situation in Baghdad, which is still parlous, although he may yet do so in one of his two remaining speeches in the series.

Nor did Bush make any reference to the growing power of independent Shiite militias with strong ties to neighboring Iran throughout southern Iraq. Indeed, he did not refer to Iran's role in Iraq anywhere in the speech, although it is a subject that is of increasing concern to both uniformed Pentagon military planners and White House and Department of Defense civilian strategists.

Bush also offered an intriguing hint at a strategy for splitting the Democrats when he went out of his way to quote approvingly from a recent article by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., praising progress in Iraq and supporting the administration's plan for victory there. Bush quoted Lieberman opposing a rapid withdrawal from Iraq as "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory."

"Sen. Lieberman is right," he said. "...That's the wrong policy for our government. Withdrawing on an artificial deadline would endanger the American people, would harm our military and make the Middle East less stable."

Lieberman, who supported Bush loyally during the build-up to the war in 2002-2003, is increasingly mentioned in White House and congressional circles as the frontrunner to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has served five years in the post.

Even now, Pentagon sources told United Press International, Rumsfeld tries to keep his main focus on developing space weapons and restructuring the entire U.S. armed forces in manpower-efficient, high-tech ways and that he is increasingly remote from policymaking on Iraq at a time when the White House wants a renewed focus on it.

The president nowhere in his speech referred to the diplomatic moves by traditional pro-American allies in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan that the United States might phase out its forces in Iraq and support their replacement with forces from these and other friendly Arab nations.

"Now the terrorists think they can make America run in Iraq, and that is not going to happen so long as I'm the commander in chief," Bush said.

"Before our mission in Iraq is accomplished, there will be tough days ahead," the president said. But then he added, "I reject the pessimists in Washington who say we can't win this war."

The president's message was even more clear than it was in Annapolis last week -- there have been and there will be tactical adjustments and corrections for past mistakes in conducting the Iraq war. But he continues to rule out any American withdrawal in the near or even foreseeable future and he remains committed to a strategy of clear and unequivocal victory there, however long it takes.

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