OAK RIDGE, Tenn. - 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 re-election campaign but 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. Saddam'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 "pre-emption" 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 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 Dick 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 fund-raiser. "If the president was right - and he was - then they are simply trying to rewrite history for their own political purposes."