Something old, nothing new

President Bush took yet another stab at convincing a dubious American public that waging war in Iraq was the proper decision, visiting the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., on Wednesday to countenance patience but offer assurances that Iraqis are assuming more and more responsibility.

“Some critics continue to assert that we have no plan in Iraq except to ‘stay the course,’ ” Bush told the assembled midshipmen.

“If by ‘stay the course’ they mean we will not allow the terrorists to break our will, they’re right. If by ‘stay the course’ they mean we will not permit al Qaeda to turn Iraq into what Afghanistan was under the Taliban, a safe haven for terrorists and a launching pad for attacks on America, they’re right as well. If by ‘stay the course’ they mean that we’re not learning from our experience or adjusting our tactics to meet the challenges on the ground, then they’re flat wrong.”

Bush has tried repeatedly over the past several months to rally public support for the war in Iraq without success. On Oct. 6, in what was billed as a major speech, the president said, “In Iraq, there is no peace without victory. We will keep our nerve and we will win that victory.”

But that address failed to regenerate enthusiasm. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted Nov. 11-13, showed that only 35 percent of those questioned approved of the manner in which the president was handling the situation in Iraq, while 63 percent disapproved. The same survey showed that 54 percent of respondents believed it was a mistake to send troops to the region.

The sagging popularity carries political consequences and is rendering it increasingly difficult for the White House to move its agenda through Congress. Republican lawmakers are growing increasingly anxious about the party’s prospects in the 2006 mid-term elections, and at least one lawmaker with indisputable pro-military credentials _ Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. _ maintains the time has arrived for America to pull its troops.

In response, Bush is stepping up to the podium again, armed this time with a 35-page game plan authored by the National Security Council titled “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq.”

“We are pursuing a comprehensive strategy to defeat the terrorists and those trying to prevent democracy from advancing in Iraq,” said Scott McClellan, the president’s press secretary. “And the president believes that the American people should have a clear understanding of our strategy. And that means how we see the enemy and how we define and achieve victory.”

Ultimately, however, White House officials acknowledged that neither the speech nor the document provided new insight into how the administration intends to proceed. Rather, the presentation was planned to detail the various rationales for the war and to explain military strategy.

Bush told a supportive crowd that his plan is succeeding and that ultimately a free Iraq will inspire democratic reformers throughout the Middle East. But most of the president’s rhetoric centered on the U.S. military’s effort to bolster the Iraqi troops, asserting that America will vacate only after Iraq is capable of handling the situation. It is a message the president has delivered since the earliest days of the conflict.

“As Iraqi forces gain experience and the political process advances, we will be able to decrease our troop level in Iraq without losing our capability to defeat the terrorists,” Bush said Wednesday. “These decisions about troop levels will be driven by the conditions on the ground in Iraq and the good judgment of our commanders, not by artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington.”

The message, which critics took to be “stay the course,” was not well-received in some quarters.

“The American people expected that the president would do more today than just put a new cover and 35 pages of rhetoric on old sound bites,” said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. “What the American people wanted from the president today was some evidence that he has heard their concerns. Clearly, the president fails to understand that a new course is needed in Iraq. The president has dug us into a deep hole in Iraq. It is time for him to stop digging.”

But Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said the president exhibited “real leadership” in presenting the plan.

“By looking past the rhetoric and examining the results on the ground, it’s clear that we continue to make progress on the political, security and economic fronts, and that as Iraq progresses, so does our strategy,” Frist said. “Creating a secure and sustainable democracy in Iraq is a challenge we will meet, and a goal we must achieve for us to win the global war on terror.”

Meanwhile, in Iraq on Wednesday, nine Iraqi soldiers were killed and 12 others injured in a car bomb blast in the town of al-Mishada. The United States has about 150,000 troops in the country. The Pentagon lists 2,107 dead and 15,568 wounded. The question facing the White House is whether the American public is more comforted by the president’s rhetoric or alarmed by those numbers.

(Contact Bill Straub at StraubB(at)