WASHINGTON – President Bush sought Wednesday to convince a skeptical public that the United States is on the cusp of winning the war in Iraq, arguing in a speech at the Pentagon that the recent buildup of forces has brought stability and “opened the door to a major strategic victory in the war on terror.”
Vice President Dick Cheney said separately it does not matter whether the public supports a continued U.S. presence in Iraq, and he likened Bush’s leadership to that of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.
After a reporter cited polls showing that two-thirds of Americans oppose the Iraq war, Cheney responded: “So?”
“I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls,” he added in an interview in Oman with ABC News. “There has in fact been fundamental change and transformation and improvement for the better.”
The confident remarks came on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, marking a concerted effort by the administration to highlight progress at a time when most Americans remain opposed to the venture.
The anniversary prompted new attacks against Bush by Democrats and sparring among the three senators running to replace him. It also thrust Iraq back into the center of the Washington debate after it was overshadowed for months by the presidential campaign and economic turmoil.
Democratic contenders Hillary Rodham Clinton, of New York, and Barack Obama, of Illinois, sharply criticized Bush for his handling of the war. Obama, speaking a day after delivering a widely watched speech on race relations, also sharpened his attacks on Clinton and GOP nominee John McCain, of Arizona, casting them as political opportunists who made the wrong call by voting to authorize the war.
“There is a security gap in this country – a gap between the rhetoric of those who claim to be tough on national security and the reality of growing insecurity caused by their decisions,” Obama said in Fayetteville, N.C.
While wrapping up a two-day visit to Israel, McCain echoed Bush’s message, saying that “America and our allies stand on the precipice of winning a major victory against radical Islamic extremism.” McCain campaign adviser Mark Salter characterized Obama as a national security neophyte who engages in “foolish supposition” about the dangers of withdrawing from Iraq.
Congressional Democrats seized on the anniversary to launch a broad assault on the administration. They lined up Wednesday to criticize Bush’s claims, particularly his assertion that the war has been worth the cost and has decreased the risk of terrorism.
“Even as we begin the sixth year of this war, all the president seems able to offer Americans is more of the same perpetual disregard for the costs and consequences of stubbornly staying the course in Iraq,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Bush’s remarks, delivered to employees at the Pentagon, signaled a revival of the bold and optimistic rhetoric the administration regularly employed during the early years of the war.
Bush said an increase of about 30,000 combat troops over the past year has helped “turn the situation in Iraq around” and made worthwhile the “high cost in lives and treasure.” He said he will reject any further troop withdrawals if they threaten security improvements. “The challenge in the period ahead is to consolidate the gains we have made and seal the extremists’ defeat,” Bush said.
His remarks came just weeks before a key assessment of the war from Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, after which the president will make a decision on troop levels. Bush has so far outflanked attempts by Democrats in Congress to force more withdrawals, and he appears unlikely to lose his political advantage for the remainder of his term.
The number of troops in Iraq, currently at nearly 160,000, is slated to drop to about 140,000 by July, which is near the level of a year ago, when Bush ordered the troop buildup to tamp down spiraling violence.
In one disputed portion of his address, Bush resurrected assertions that Osama bin Laden and his followers have played a central role in the Iraqi conflict. Bush suggested that a backlash among local Sunni Muslims to the group calling itself al-Qaida in Iraq amounted to “the first large-scale Arab uprising against Osama bin Laden, his grim ideology and his terror network.”
Many terrorism experts say there are few operational contacts between bin Laden’s group and its Iraqi namesake, and they note that the group was formed only after the U.S. invasion in March 2003. Al-Qaida in Iraq is also considered a relatively small player in the constellation of insurgent forces battling U.S. and Iraqi forces, according to military, terrorism and intelligence experts.
Paul Pillar, a retired senior CIA analyst who has been sharply critical of the Bush administration’s run-up to the Iraq war, said much of Bush’s speech “could have been taken out of a speech five years ago.”
“The same case is being made for sustaining a presence in Iraq as was made to go into Iraq in the first place,” he said.