WASHINGTON – With the delivery of a “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq” on Wednesday, President Bush sought to convince wary Americans that he has a detailed plan for success, including the expectation that some American forces could start to withdraw next year.
But Democrats, emboldened by slumping public support for the war and increasing calls for a reduction of U.S. forces, responded to the president’s newest argument with a speed and force evocative of a campaign, ridiculing it as a public-relations gambit.
In a setting ready-made for applause – before midshipmen at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. – the president outlined a strategy that he said had previously been classified. The plan had few new details but represented the first time that the administration had shared its overall strategy in such a public way.
It was part of an attempt by the administration to rebuild support for the war effort leading up to the Dec. 15 elections in Iraq.
The president was at times defiant, saying he would not be moved by calls for “artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington” and vowing again to secure total victory in Iraq. At the same time, citing the emerging capacity of the new Iraqi security forces, he suggested that some troops might be returning home in coming months.
With the release of the 35-page National Security Council document supporting the president’s strategy, the White House now has stated that it expects, “but cannot guarantee,” that the deployment of U.S. troops will change next year.
“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 president said. “America will not run in the face of car bombers and assassins so long as I am your commander in chief.”
Although Democrats have struggled for months to articulate their own strategy for success in Iraq, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was ready this time with an instant Democratic response. The party’s candidate for president in 2004 – who voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq in 2002 and later voted against additional funding for the war – suggested that Americans are searching for a game plan from an administration more intent on playing a public-relations game.
The Democrats “can’t summon the Naval Academy here or West Point to be our backdrop to talk about the truth about Iraq, but we can summon the truth,” Kerry said.
“And the truth is that the president draws a false line in trying to make his case to America,” said Kerry, asserting that Bush had failed to devise a plan that will stabilize Iraq. “His inability to articulate such a plan has allowed the nation’s doubts to grow about the course of our efforts in Iraq.”
American support for the war has reached new lows. Only 35 percent of those surveyed by the Gallup Poll in mid-November said they approved of the president’s handling of the war, and 63 percent voiced disapproval. Most surveyed call the war a mistake, though few support immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Just 19 percent say troops should be withdrawn immediately, while 33 percent want troops withdrawn within the year and 38 percent say troops should stay as long as necessary.
The president has attempted to assuage the public’s doubts about his strategy by putting it in writing and pointing to the Web site where people can read it – www.whitehouse.gov.
“I urge all Americans to read it,” Bush said.
Though newly published, the strategy is in fact the same plan that Bush has promoted for months in speeches across the country.
He fleshed it out with details about the buildup of Iraqi security forces and a textured assessment of the enemy in Iraq. He said those fighting American troops included “rejectionist” Iraqis who miss privileges that they had under Saddam Hussein, “loyalists” who held positions of power and still harbor dreams of returning to power, and the smallest “but most lethal,” terrorists affiliated with or inspired by al-Qaida.
Central to his strategy for success is the development of Iraqi forces sufficient to withstand an insurgency conducting, as Bush calls it, a campaign of “chaos for the cameras” designed to shake the will of the American public.
As Iraqi security forces “stand up,” Bush promised again on Wednesday, U.S.-led forces will “stand down.” Any U.S. withdrawal, his printed strategy asserts, will be “conditions-based.” But in highlighting the progress of training and deploying Iraqi security forces, Bush is assuring the public that conditions for withdrawal are promising.
As a measure of hope for the eventual stand-down of American forces, the president has pointed to burgeoning Iraqi battalions – “only a handful” operating last year, compared with 80 fighting alongside coalition forces today, the president said, with 40 “taking the lead in the fight.”
Yet Iraqi forces face the challenge of subduing local militias with tribal and ethnic loyalties. Mistrust among ethnic factions, fueled by insurgent attacks apparently aimed at inflaming the divisions, may be the largest obstacle that Iraqi forces face.
“We’re making measured progress” in training a credible Iraqi army, said Phebe Marr, an Iraq scholar and senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “My own impression is that when creating an integrated (Iraqi) army, you’re not talking months, you’re talking years.”
Democratic leaders also voiced skepticism. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the president, in effectively asking Americans to “stay the course” in Iraq, has failed to spell out a clear strategy for bringing troops home.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has joined Democratic Rep. John Murtha’s call for a withdrawal of troops. “That is what the American people and our troops deserve,” said Pelosi, D-Calif.
As a measure of the growing sensitivity of the war debate, Bush, who initially had harsh words for critics accusing the White House of manipulating prewar intelligence, has softened his stance toward those such as Murtha.
“Many advocating an artificial timetable for withdrawing our troops are sincere,” Bush told the midshipmen. “But I believe they’re sincerely wrong.”