Launching a new effort to stem the plummeting loss in public confidence in his Iraq policy, U.S. President George W. Bush reiterated his commitment to bringing "freedom" and self-government to Baghdad and warned that US failure will "only mark the beginning of peril and violence."
Addressing a respectful and unusually restrained group of mid- and senior-level officers at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Bush stressed that the stakes in Iraq, which he called "the central front in the war on terror," were extremely high while suggesting that US occupation forces may be more likely to seek political solutions than to resort to military force against suspected rebels or other malcontents.
Citing the US Marines’ recent agreement to permit an all-Iraqi force, including senior officers of the dissolved Revolutionary Guard, to take responsibility for security in Fallujah, Bush made clear that he fully endorsed such an arrangement despite complaints, particularly from neo-conservative and right-wing hawks, that the Fallujah deal amounted to "appeasement."
"American soldiers and Marines could have used overwhelming force," he said. "Our commanders, however, determined that massive strikes against the enemy would alienate the local population and increase support for the insurgency."
"So we have pursued a different approach. We’re making security a shared responsibility in Fallujah," he said, adding later, "We want the Iraqi people to know that we trust their growing capabilities, even as we help build them."
Similarly, he reiterated US support for U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s efforts to put together members of an interim government, the naming of which Bush said Brahimi hoped to announced later this week.
The UN envoy has also come under strong attack, particularly by neo-conservatives who charge that he has a pro-Sunni agenda aimed at restoring power to Arab nationalists.
"America fully supports Mr. Brahimi’s efforts, and I have instructed the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to assist him in every way possible," Bush declared, effectively confirming that power within his administration has shifted to the "realists" who have long supported a much bigger role in Iraq for the United Nations.
Bush, who spoke for roughly 30 minutes, announced no concrete new initiatives in Iraq, other than the construction of a "modern maximum-security prison" whose completion will house detainees who are currently held at Abu Ghraib prison, the site of the now-notorious photos of physical and sexual abuses committed by US soldiers against Iraqi detainees. "Under the dictator (Saddam Hussein), prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture," he said. "That same prison became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values."
After the new prison’s construction, he added: "We will demolish the Abu Ghraib prison as a fitting symbol of Iraq’s new beginning."
Bush, whose public approval ratings fell to a record low of 41 percent in the past week, was clearly trying to move the media and public spotlight on recent setbacks, such as Abu Ghraib and recent reports that the Pentagon’s long-standing pick to rule Iraq, Ahmed Chalabi, may have been working for Iran, in a more future-oriented and hopeful direction.
To that end, he made a rare admission that some things had not gone according to plan, notably that "our commanders had estimated that a troop level below 115,000 would be sufficient at this point in the conflict."
"Given the recent increase in violence," he said, "we will maintain our troop level at the current 138,000 as long as necessary." He added that more troops would be sent to Iraq "if the commanders said they were needed."
Except for explicitly endorsing the strategy pursued by the Marines in Fallujah, however, Bush did not suggest any major change in course, as some observers have argued is necessary to regain the confidence of both the U.S. public, and, more important, Iraqis, 90 percent of whom, according to the most recent survey obtained by the Chicago Tribune over the weekend, now consider U.S. troops to be "occupiers" rather than "liberators."
With Iraqi public opinion so hostile, some analysts had hoped that Bush would make a dramatic announcement Monday, such as his intention to withdraw all U.S. forces no later than the end of next year, or to renounce any intention of retaining U.S. military facilities or rights to access to bases on Iraqi territory after the occupation is ended.
But Bush kept largely to the script that has been developed over the last six weeks and laid out a five-step plan to "help Iraq achieve democracy and freedom," including "handing over authority to a sovereign Iraqi government; help establish security, continue rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure; encourage more international support; and move toward a national election that will bring forward new leaders empowered by the Iraqi people."
"I sent American troops to Iraq to defend our security, not to stay as an occupying power. I sent American troops to Iraq to make its people free, not to make them Americans," he declared in one of his bigger applause lines.
He said the interim government will "exercise full sovereignty" until national elections are held by the end of next year, but did not define sovereignty. He stressed that "American military forces in Iraq will operate under American command as a part of a multinational force authorized by the United Nations."
He also noted that the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which is supposed to become the world’s largest US embassy with a staff of more than 2,000, will have "regional offices in key cities (that) will work closely with Iraqis at all levels of government."
At the same time, Bush’s tone was significantly less smug and contemptuous than in other recent speeches, particularly with respect to the United Nations and his praise for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which Washington still hopes will decide to assume a substantial security role in Iraq at next month’s Istanbul Summit.
Similarly, Bush dispensed with the word "evil" or "evildoers" in the address, although he still posed the conflict in black-and-white terms, accusing "terrorists" of trying to "impose Taliban-like rule country by country across the greater Middle East."
"They seek the total control of every person in mind and soul," he said. "It is a totalitarian political ideology pursued with consuming zeal and without conscience."
Instead of using another phrase that he and his top aides have frequently deployed to describe their determination, "Stay the course," he called on the public to "keep our focus" and "do our duty."
It was an interesting change, prompted no doubt by the fact that retired Central Command chief, Gen. Anthony Zinni, had mocked the phrase in a story featured on the most widely viewed public-affairs television show, CBS "60 Minutes" Sunday night. "(T)o think we are going to stay the course; the course is headed over Niagara Falls," he said in a sentence that was also widely quoted in the newspapers Monday morning.
In some ways, the choice of the Army War College to deliver the speech was also curious due to the fact that retired army commanders like Zinni, Gen. Wesley Clark and the most recent army chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, have been furious with the way the administration has treated their overstretched service since the Iraq War.
Indeed, officers attending Monday’s speech appeared respectful, but uncharacteristically subdued toward a sitting Republican president, applauding less than 10 times in the course of a speech that contained dozens of applause lines.
Bush himself occasionally paused during his delivery in apparent anticipation of applause, but, hearing none, forged ahead with his text a fitting metaphor, perhaps, for the situation he faces in Iraq.