Bush defends Iraq war effort
RENO – Two weeks before receiving a major assessment of the war in Iraq, President Bush gave a ringing defense of the war effort Tuesday in a speech that sounded like he’d already made up his mind to stay and fight.
Bush hailed security gains, defended middling progress by Iraqi leaders and argued that the future of the entire Middle East would rise or fall on the outcome.
“It’s going to take time for the recent progress we have seen in security to translate into political progress,” Bush told a friendly audience at the American Legion’s national convention. “Leaders in Washington need to look for ways to help our Iraqi allies succeed, not excuses for abandoning them.”
Bush argued that withdrawing American forces would allow the Middle East to be taken over by extremists and put the security of the United States in jeopardy. By contrast, he said, continuing to fight is “the most important and immediate way” to put the strategic, struggling region on a path to democracy, economic expansion and stability that is inhospitable to terrorists.
Democrats criticized Bush’s approach.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Bush “continues to stubbornly pursue a flawed strategy” that has failed to deliver in Iraq, diverted attention from battling al-Qaida, and depleted the military’s ability to respond to other crises. “A change of course in Iraq is long overdue” and will be pressed by the Democrats who control Congress, Reid said.
Bush’s speech before thousands at the American Legion convention was his second in a week devoted to trying to build support for the unpopular war, now in its fifth year. Last week before the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, he likened the importance of today’s fight against extremism in Iraq to pivotal past U.S. conflicts in Vietnam, Korea and Japan.
The Iraq report due to Congress by Sept. 15 requires Ryan Crocker, Bush’s envoy in Baghdad, and the top U.S. general in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, to measure whether the 30,000 additional U.S. forces Bush ordered in January are improving security enough to create an environment for lasting political progress. The pair also is to say whether Iraqis are performing well on mutually agreed benchmarks.
Bush argued forcefully that the answer to both is “yes.”
The president said there is reason to be hopeful about Iraqi leaders’ efforts, particularly at the local and regional levels. Many benchmarks also are being met in effect without legislation, he said, noting that oil revenues are being shared among provinces without the passage of a law to require it.
He praised a weekend pact among leading Iraqi politicians on some other issues that have blocked national reconciliation. However, the Iraqi parliament still must codify the agreements – something that has repeatedly fallen apart in the past. The deal was not enough to bring the main Sunni Arab political bloc back into the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
After last week’s tense exchanges between Washington and Baghdad about U.S. frustration with al-Maliki’s government, Bush compared the struggles of Iraq today with the sometimes-difficult nature of democracy during U.S. history.
“In the midst of the security challenges, Iraq’s leaders are being asked to resolve political issues as complex and emotional as the struggle for civil rights in our own country,” the president said. “So it’s no wonder that progress is halting and people are often frustrated. … Even we can’t pass a budget on time, and we’ve had 200 years of practice.”
With the surge of additional U.S. troops now widely viewed as having some tactical success, Bush accused critics of constantly moving the goal post.
“Their argument used to be that security was bad, so the surge has failed. Now their argument seems to be security is better, so the surge has failed,” he said.
The president used Iran’s ambitions for increased global power as one argument for why failure in Iraq would cause the region to fall apart and the world to become more dangerous.
He accused Iran’s leadership of trying to destabilize Iraq, saying, “I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran’s murderous activities.” And he said that a precipitous U.S. departure from Iraq would lead Tehran to “conclude that we were weak,” accelerate its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons and touch off an atomic arms race in the already volatile Middle East.
“Iran’s actions threaten the security of nations everywhere,” Bush said.
Former Reno city councilwoman Judy Herman was among the approximately 75 demonstrators who gathered outside the convention center. She said she was there “to make sure that President Bush understands the U.S. must get out of Iraq and we don’t want to go to Iran.”
The sentiment was different inside the hall.
“We have a lot of congressmen who want to go and pull out” of Iraq, said Dave Bode, a Vietnam veteran from Nicollat, Minn. “They’d better sit back and understand they are free over here and if they were in another country they wouldn’t be.”
At least 3,728 military members have died in the more than four-year-old war in Iraq. After his remarks, Bush met privately with the families of 12 military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Later Tuesday, the president was flying to New Orleans, where he was having dinner with cultural leaders. He was commemorating the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s strike there and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast on Wednesday before returning to Washington.