In tough talk, a nod to troop reduction?
Though he dismisses "artificial timetables" for an Iraq pullout, the president's words point to a White House tilt toward a clearer exit strategy.
By wire services
Published December 1, 2005
WASHINGTON - Thirty-two months after U.S. forces invaded Iraq, President Bush's advisers concluded that his message of "stay the course" has been translated by a weary American public as "stay forever." And so Wednesday the president tried to reassure the nation that he has a comprehensive vision for beating the insurgency and eventually bringing U.S. troops home.
The message was hardly subtle as the White House posted a 35-page "Victory in Iraq" strategy on its Web site and hung dozens of "Plan for Victory" signs behind Bush as he addressed a crowd of cheering midshipmen in Annapolis, Md. But it was intended to reshape the argument against critics who have been calling to withdraw troops immediately or at least set a timetable for pulling out.
The president came as close as he ever has to admitting mistakes on Iraq, acknowledging setbacks and uneven results in the training of Iraqi troops. And while he vowed U.S. troops would not be withdrawn to satisfy "artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington," his Naval Academy speech could help set the stage for a reduction in troops next year.
That's because Bush emphasized progress, if initially halting, in the training of Iraqi troops who will one day replace U.S. forces.
Any U.S. reduction, the president said, will be driven by "the conditions on the ground in Iraq and the good judgment of our commanders."
Some Democratic critics said Bush's speech and the document posted on the Web broke no new ground, mostly restating administration aims put forth in 2003.
"I think the president's sincere," Sen. John Kerry said after the speech. "I don't question he's standing up and fighting, in his view, for what is best for our country. But we have differences of opinion about what the reality is on the ground and how we get there."
Bush "once again missed an opportunity to lay out a real strategy for success in Iraq that will bring our troops safely home," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
But Bush's speech, the first of several he's expected to make in the runup to Dec. 15 elections to seat a permanent Iraqi government, could reflect an administration repositioning to highlight exit preparations - if not exactly an exit timetable - and to more closely define the nature of the enemy.
"I think he's sharpened his language a lot today. Obviously, things haven't been flowing in his direction lately," said Frederick Barton, an Iraq specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Barton said that Bush's intended audience, besides the military, the broader American public and Iraqi voters, included members of Congress who have grown increasingly skeptical of the Iraq mission - including "reluctant members of his own party" who sit on committees with jurisdiction over defense spending.
Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, called two weeks ago for the withdrawal of all 160,000 U.S. troops from Iraq over the next six months, igniting protests from the White House and Republican congressional leaders.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who earlier had said Murtha spoke only for himself, said Wednesday, "I believe that a majority of our caucus clearly supports Mr. Murtha."
Also, the Senate has voted to require the administration to send Congress regular reports on the war's progress and has suggested that 2006 be made a key year of transition toward Iraqi self-protection.
Thus, the debate over troop withdrawal was very much on the agenda during Bush's speech. The president said those advocating withdrawal now are "sincerely wrong" and would "send a signal to our enemies that if they wait long enough, America will cut and run and abandon its friends."
At the same time, Bush declared that progress was indeed being made on training Iraqi forces to replace U.S. troops.
"The training of the Iraqi forces is an enormous task and it always hadn't gone smoothly," Bush conceded.
But, he said, "many of those forces have made real gains over the past year and Iraqi soldiers take pride in their progress."
While recent polls indicate Bush's approval rating is at the low point of his presidency - 37 percent in a recent AP-Ipsos poll, with 53 percent saying they believe the war was a mistake - polling data also show much of the public is still eager for victory and open to persuasion if the president can make the case that he has made progress.
Administration officials studied numbers in a survey last week by RT Strategies, a bipartisan polling firm, that found that 49 percent of Americans favor bringing troops home when "specific goals and objectives" are met, 30 percent want a fixed timetable for pulling out and 16 percent support immediate withdrawal.
Bush's advisers said that his speech and the document were long overdue, and that the need for such a statement dated to last summer, when antiwar sentiment grew around Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq who staged a monthlong protest outside the president's Texas ranch.
"It's the most well-articulated policy position on Iraq that I've heard the president state in many months," said Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, a Republican. "... I'm delighted that it focused on outcomes, on completion of the mission."
As the president pointed to successes during Wednesday's speech, he said there were more than "120 Iraqi army and police combat battalions" in the fight against insurgents, with each battalion typically consisting of 350 to 800 troops. Of those, about 80 battalions are fighting alongside coalition forces and "about 40 others are taking the lead in the fight," Bush said.
Michele Flournoy, a senior Pentagon official in the Clinton administration, said there's no question that the performance of Iraqi units has improved - but probably not to the extent that would allow a major U.S. troop withdrawal soon. Still, withdrawal "is forcing its way onto the agenda," Flournoy said.
"From the administration's perspective, there are huge political pressures to begin some redeployment before the 2006 elections so a measure of victory can be declared," she said.
Supporters say Bush wasn't about to declare victory for political expediency - and then leave.
"Democrats ignore the real progress on the ground, caught up in the headline of the moment" said Ken Mehlman, Republican National Committee chairman. "Our commander in chief remains committed to completing the mission in Iraq."
Information from the Washington Post, New York Times, Associated Press and Knight Ridder news service was used in this report.
[Last modified December 1, 2005, 01:08:09]
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