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Bush Ramps Up Defense of U.S. Strategy on Iraq


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

In Washington today, President Bush delivered the second in a series of speeches devoted to his plans for winning the war in Iraq. Speaking to the bipartisan Council on Foreign Relations, the president again began his remarks on the Iraq conflict by referring to the terror attacks of 9/11. He compared those events to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 64 years ago today, which brought the US into World War II.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: On September the 11th, 2001, our nation awoke to another sudden attack. In a space of just 102 minutes, more Americans were killed than we lost at Pearl Harbor. Like generations before us, we accepted new responsibilities and we confronted new dangers with firm resolve.

NORRIS: President Bush went on to call Iraq the central front in the war on terror. He highlighted progress he said had been made in Iraq's economy, and he held up the cities of Najaf and Mosul as places where heavy fighting has given way to signs of peace and prosperity.

Pres. BUSH: As soon as the fighting in Najaf ended, targeted reconstruction moved forward. The Iraqi government played an active role, and so did our military commanders and diplomats and workers from the US Agency for International Development. Together, they worked with Najaf's governor and other local officials to rebuild the local police force, repair residents' homes, refurbish schools, restore water and other essential services. We opened a soccer stadium complete with new lights and fresh sod.

BLOCK: From Najaf, which is 90 miles south of Baghdad, the president looked north to Mosul.

Pres. BUSH: Like Najaf, Mosul's infrastructure was devastated during Saddam's reign. This city is still not receiving enough electricity, so Iraqis have a major new project under way to expand the Mosul power substation. Terrorist intimidation is still a concern. This past week, people hanging election posters were attacked and killed. Yet freedom is taking hold in Mosul, and residents are making their voices heard.

NORRIS: The president cited the backing of some Democrats, such as Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. But he denounced those Democrats who've called for a US withdrawal as soon as possible. And with this vow, he won the only outburst of applause that interrupted today's speech.

Pres. BUSH: In the past, al-Qaeda has said that American pullouts from Lebanon and Somalia showed them that America was weak and could be made to run. And 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.

(Soundbite of applause)

BLOCK: The president is expected to deliver two more speeches on Iraq this month. It's all part of a new recognition in the White House that declining support for the war has undercut the president's support in general. As NPR's David Greene reports, this has prompted an aggressive new campaign to sell the war and counter criticism.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

The Bush White House is well aware of what it's up against: a growing perception that the war in Iraq is a mess and that it's time to retreat. Some Americans may recall when that time came in the Vietnam War, when CBS anchor Walter Cronkite said on the air in 1968 what many citizens felt already.

(Soundbite of 1968 CBS broadcast)

Mr. WALTER CRONKITE (CBS News): To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, if unsatisfactory, conclusion.

GREENE: President Bush and his team have concluded that there's still time to win back at least some of this war's generation of skeptics if they can convince them that the war in Iraq can ultimately be won. `Victory' is the new buzzword at the White House. Mr. Bush used it in the Oval Office yesterday when asked about war criticism from the Democrats.

Pres. BUSH: Oh, there's pessimists, you know, and politicians who try to score points, but you know, our strategy is one that is--will lead us to victory.

GREENE: The word `victory' is showing up everywhere, including all over a new document the White House released last week. It's 35 pages of what officials say is the president's strategy for success in the war. Presidential aides at first said it was an unclassified version of an internal strategy memo. They acknowledged later that it was largely a repackaging of policies that had long been public. By releasing the documents just before dawn one day last week, they got what they wanted: television reporters from all the networks standing outside the White House holding up a copy of a new presidential strategy for victory in Iraq.

Polls generally show three Americans out of five now disapprove of the president's handling of the war. Has public sentiment passed the tipping point? John Mueller is a professor at Ohio State University and a leading scholar on war and public opinion. He says his research has been consistent from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq: Americans reach a point in their cost-benefit analysis when they feel that American deaths aren't worth it.

Professor JOHN MUELLER (Ohio State University): Even if the war starts to go reasonably well and Iraqization takes over the way it did in Vietnam with Vietnamization, I don't expect a huge difference and particularly a huge permanent difference in the amount of support the war generates. Generally, it seems to me that there's going to be this slow erosion continuing.

GREENE: Other researchers disagree. One team at Duke University, Professors Peter Feaver and Christopher Gelpi, say up to 40 percent of Americans will shift their thinking on any war based on their expectation of success. Gelpi said in an interview that a president can make the case that a war can be won even in later stages of the conflict.

Professor CHRISTOPHER GELPI (Duke University): Mueller believes that as casualties go up, support goes down, period, full stop. We think that it's more complex than that, that there's some circumstances, especially where the public is not sure we're going to win, where that's true, but there are other circumstances where it's not.

GREENE: Gelpi said these swing voters can't be brought back to support a war indefinitely. Gelpi also said a president can't just talk about success.

Prof. GELPI: I think the evidence suggests that presidential rhetoric on its own, in the long run, is not going to be enough, because if rhetoric becomes too far distant from the reality that people observe, it loses its credibility.

GREENE: Still, Mr. Bush and his team have found encouragement in the research by Feaver and Gelpi, so much so that Feaver was hired by the Bush White House earlier this year and worked on the new strategy document released last week. He works at the National Security Council, where deputy national security adviser J.D. Crouch says the president's new strategy is an opportunity for the American people.

Mr. J.D. CROUCH (Deputy National Security Adviser): It gives them an opportunity to understand: What is the nature of the enemy? How do we define victory? What are the steps that we're going to take? And how do we measure our own success?

GREENE: The president's communications team is also going after the president's war critics in Congress and in the media. Advocates for quick withdrawal are labeled as `extremists.' In a speech yesterday, Vice President Dick Cheney said, `Withdrawing troops is an extreme idea that would have cataclysmic results.'

Vice President DICK CHENEY: That nation would return to the rule of tyrants, become a massive source of instability in the Middle East and be a staging area for ever-greater attacks against America and other civilized nations.

GREENE: Cheney was speaking from an Army garrison at Ft. Drum in upstate New York. Both he and Mr. Bush have given most of their recent speeches on the war to uniformed audiences at military installations, where they take no questions and rarely see protesters. David Greene, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
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