CLEVELAND – Hoping to shore up support for the Iraq war, President Bush opened himself to questions at a rare public forum Monday and got an earful from skeptics who questioned his motives and his credibility.
Speaking to the City Club of Cleveland, Bush acknowledged that many Americans don’t share his confidence that Iraq can become a stable democracy. The freewheeling question-and-answer session that followed his prepared remarks gave skeptics a chance to confront the president directly.
Bush seemed taken aback when the first questioner asked him whether he views the conflict in biblical terms, as an apocalyptic struggle for the Middle East. Some of the president’s critics have speculated that his Christianity and a wish to protect the Holy Land are behind his desire to transform the Middle East.
“The answer is, I haven’t really thought of it that way,” he replied. “First I’ve heard of that, by the way. I guess I’m more of a practical fellow.”
Bush said his primary concern was protecting Americans from another terrorist attack.
Another questioner suggested that the president had damaged his credibility in the run-up to war by linking Iraq to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
“That’s a great question,” Bush said before taking issue with the assertion that he had tied Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I was careful never to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack on America,” he said.
While that’s true, the president did link Iraq to Sept. 11 in other ways.
For example, in a letter to Congress at the start of the war, Bush said the use of force against Iraq “is consistent with the United States and other countries continuing to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.”
Another questioner asked why Bush had ordered an invasion of Iraq but is relying on diplomacy in the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programs. The president said he felt he had exhausted diplomatic options with Iraq.
“The Iran issue is just beginning to play out,” he added.
But Bush stressed that he’s willing to go to war with Iran.
“I’ve made it clear, and I’ll make it clear again, that we will use military might to protect our ally, Israel,” he said.
The tough questions – all delivered in polite and respectful terms – were striking because Bush typically appears before audiences dominated by screened Republican supporters.
Despite the obvious skepticism of some audience members, the president appeared to win over the crowd with his friendly banter and willingness to engage critics.
“He’s got to get out and do more of this,” retired radiologist Ted Castele said after the 90-minute session. “There are a lot of concerns, serious concerns.”
Polls show that most Americans think the war was a mistake and don’t expect a good outcome.
“I understand how some Americans have had their confidence shaken,” Bush said. “They wonder what I see that they don’t.”