ARLINGTON, Va. – President Bush marked Veterans Day by praising U.S. troops for fighting tyranny and oppression, yet touched only briefly on the war in Iraq, where U.S. commanders are rethinking strategy.
Three days after announcing the ouster of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Bush hailed members of the armed services, past and present, for their dedication and bravery. His seven-minute speech at Arlington National Cemetery contrasted sharply with the strong rhetoric he used to defend the war on Veterans Day a year ago.
On Saturday, Bush did not cite Iraq and Afghanistan by name, though he did say, “From Valley Forge to Vietnam, from Kuwait to Kandahar, from Berlin to Baghdad, our veterans have borne the costs of America’s wars – and they have stood watch over America’s peace. The American people are grateful to the veterans and all who have fought for our freedom.”
Kandahar is Afghanistan’s second-largest city. Baghdad is the Iraqi capital.
Cannons fired a 21-gun salute and soldiers, clasping rifles with bayonets, stood at attention as Bush’s motorcade wound through rows of white tombstones. The president laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, holding his hand over his heart as a bugler played taps.
Paying tribute to American troops, the commander in chief said, “They’ve brought down tyrants, they’ve liberated two nations, they have helped bring freedom to more than 50 million people” – a reference to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Through their sacrifice, they’re making this nation safer and more secure – and they are earning the proud title of veteran,” Bush said.
On Veterans Day last year, Bush rebuked congressional critics of his Iraq war policy. Speaking at an Army depot in Tobyhanna, Pa., he accused opposition lawmakers of being “deeply irresponsible” and sending the wrong signal both to America’s enemy and to U.S. troops.
Last year’s speech was part of a coordinated White House effort to bolster the president’s waning credibility and dwindling support for the war. At the time, the U.S. death count had exceeded 2,000. Today it tops 2,840.
In Baghdad on Saturday, police reported gunmen ambushed minibuses, killing at least 10 passengers and kidnapping about 50, and a pair of car bombs tore through a downtown shopping district, killing eight people
Democrats, who took control of the House and Senate in Tuesday’s voting, read the elections as a demand for change in Iraq.
“Americans across the country made it clear that they want a new direction in Iraq and in the war on terror, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said in his party’s weekly radio address.
Democrats have not coalesced around one alternative strategy for Iraq.
“We will listen to the military, take their advice, and ensure that our troops and agencies have the tools and equipment they need to defend our freedom,” Dean said.
In the presidential radio address, broadcast before his visit to the cemetery, Bush said America’s enemies should not read the election results as a sign of U.S. weakness. During the campaign, he contended Democrats would undermine national security.
“The elections will bring changes to Washington,” Bush said. “But one thing has not changed: America faces brutal enemies who have attacked us before and want to attack us again.
“I have a message for these enemies: Do not confuse the workings of American democracy with a lack of American will,” the president said. “Our nation is committed to bringing you to justice, and we will prevail.”