In a round of speeches on Iraq, President Bush is combining fresh expressions of steely resolve with sobering acknowledgments of how unexpectedly hard the task has been.
While his detractors say the president has offered no new initiatives, his supporters say the president’s two-week speaking blitz is helping to turn public opinion in his favor and putting Democrats on the defensive.
Bush on Wednesday will give the fourth and final in a series of speeches showcasing this week’s elections to choose a permanent Iraqi government. He is working to rebuild support for a war that a majority of Americans now say was a mistake.
Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster, credits the speeches with helping to nudge up Bush’s overall approval ratings and his numbers on handling Iraq in several recent polls.
“The president needs to continue to reaffirm why we’re in Iraq and what this battle is all about, and make sure the Democrats are not the only ones being heard out there,” Goeas said.
Other pollsters aren’t so sure that Bush can claim much forward momentum from recent events.
“I think that to really move the needle on Iraq, events there on the ground are going to have to change. Fewer casualties, things like that,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.
In Philadelphia on Monday, Bush stood by his decision to invade Iraq in March 2003 even though some 30,000 Iraqis and more than 2,100 American troops have died. He acknowledged the U.S. image overseas is suffering because of Iraq, but likened it to the rocky start for U.S. self-government in the 18th century.
“Knowing what I know today I’d make the decision again,” the president said.
In his series of speeches, Bush is working to explain his Iraq policy more clearly.
He began the series on Nov. 30 at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., by focusing on the progress in training Iraqi security forces. Last week, in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent think tank, Bush talked about rebuilding Iraq’s economy.
In Monday’s speech at Philadelphia’s World Affairs Council, Bush emphasized efforts “to help the Iraqi people build a lasting democracy in the heart of the Middle East.”
“When they do go to the polls and choose a new government under the new constitution, it’ll be a remarkable event in the Arab world,” he said.
His planned speech on Wednesday at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington was expected to pull the different strands together.
In each speech so far, Bush has conceded that things have not gone as smoothly as he had hoped, and emphasized that much work needs to be done.
In the Philadelphia speech, Bush said “a free Iraq is not going to be a quiet Iraq. It will be a nation that continues to face some level of violence.”
“They are important speeches,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said, “and they are helping to inform the American people about the progress that’s being made on the ground in Iraq, the stakes involved in Iraq and the challenges that remain.”
Bush’s political opponents have a different view.
“There’s no way we can win a war when you’ve lost not only the hearts and minds of the people (of Iraq), when you become the enemy,” Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said. Murtha is a longtime hawk on military matters who has become the point man for a troop pullout.
Several national polls conducted since Bush started the series of Iraq speeches show his numbers are up. An AP-Ipsos poll taken Dec. 5-7 showed Bush’s job approval rating rose from 37 percent last month to 42 percent. On Iraq, he was up from 37 percent to 41 percent now.
Rick Barton, a former U.N. official who oversaw the protection of uprooted people in war zones, said Bush’s three speeches have been “hopeful and more realistic” than some of his earlier pronouncements on Iraq.
“My worry continues to be whether words and deeds match up,” said Barton, now an Iraq specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think he underestimates how difficult the follow-on period after the election will be.”
Thomas E. Cronin, a political scientist and presidential historian at Colorado College, said Bush’s Iraq speeches will help him “a little bit, but not much.”
On the other hand, said Cronin, “if he doesn’t do those things, he loses any capacity to be an agenda-setter.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a Brookings Institution military analyst who has supported Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, said he doesn’t think the president had “enough new to say to justify four speeches.”
“Yes, he’s showing his focus and his resolve, and that’s all good. But he’s also not introducing many new policy ideas,” O’Hanlon said. “And his interpretation of how things are going in Iraq is, as far as I can tell, simply too rosy.”
Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.