Bush strives to appear man with balanced agenda

President takes care to address domestic issues while waging war

War In Iraq

March 21, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As U.S. ground forces moved across the Iraqi border a world away, President Bush sought yesterday to display an air of normalcy, saying that even during wartime it is important for America to focus on such issues as health care and children's literacy.

The day at the White House was at times tense, at other moments strikingly routine. Speaking to reporters for two minutes after a Cabinet meeting, the president said his administration remains engaged in his domestic agenda and was working hard to spur growth in a sputtering economy.

Bush's comments suggested that he learned a lesson from his father, who saw his soaring public approval ratings during the 1991 Persian Gulf war plummet afterward, ending in defeat when he sought re-election.

Many Americans had complained that the elder Bush appeared to be disengaged from their economic well-being and from other issues close to their lives at home.

Yesterday, ticking off some of his domestic priorities, the president said: "We will continue to push for a Medicare system that is compassionate for our seniors. We care deeply about the fact that some children in our society can't read."

Today, the White House announced, Bush will travel, as he often does on Fridays, to the Camp David presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains for the weekend. This time, though, he is leaving at 1:30 p.m., two hours earlier than he usually does on Friday afternoons.

But if Bush publicly displayed the appearance of a man managing his burdens with aplomb, behind the scenes he was intensely immersed in the details of war. He received frequent briefings from his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, including intelligence on whether Saddam Hussein and other Iraqi leaders had survived the early military strikes on Baghdad.

Though Bush has said his main goal is to disarm Iraq, he has spent the past year painting Hussein as a brutal tyrant, seeking to persuade Americans that they could never be truly safe with the Iraqi leader in power.

Having made the removal of Hussein a top priority, Bush had much at stake in an attack that targeted Hussein himself and that sought, in effect, to end the war before it really began.

His spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said bluntly yesterday, "We have no intention of leaving Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq.

"It is the leadership level at the top that has imposed this tyranny on Iraq, and has brought the world to the point of the use of force," Fleischer said. "Clearly, the world will be better off without these leaders in place."

Some have said that Bush needs the ouster of Hussein to claim any kind of victory in the war. And administration officials have said that once Hussein is toppled, other Iraqi officials might quickly surrender, allowing U.S. forces to enter Iraq unopposed and disarm the country.

Yet Bush also knows the potential frustrations of having one individual become the focal point of a war. Early in the war in Afghanistan, the president said he wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive." U.S. officials believe that the military missed a chance to kill bin Laden when they were bombing a mountainous region of Afghanistan in December 2001.

In his comments to reporters yesterday, the president did not mention Hussein or discuss the U.S. bombing strikes in Iraq. Bush, who took no questions from reporters, has not made himself available for questioning since Sunday, at a summit in the Azores Islands.

Fleischer said Bush refused to be a "play-by-play commentator" during war.

"He will not micromanage it," the spokesman said. "He will empower the military to accomplish it. And that means he is not going to every day, every way, comment on every different development around the world."

Last night, a senior White House official offered a glimpse of the tense moments leading to the final decision to wage war.

On Wednesday, the president held an 8 a.m. meeting in the Situation Room with his war council. Bush had the final blueprint for war in hand, and he asked each of his closest advisers for final thoughts about going ahead.

Then Bush was connected via video-conference phone with Gen. Tommy Franks, who commands U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region and who was at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, along with a handful of other commanders in the region. Bush asked each whether he was satisfied with the war strategy. Each said yes.

In these "tense moments," the White House official said, Franks was having trouble operating the button on the video equipment that allowed him to talk to the president.

"Don't worry, Tommy," Bush said, apparently seeing humor in the commander of U.S. armed forces in the gulf having brief trouble using a videophone. "I haven't lost faith in you."

The Situation Room erupted in laughter.

Minutes later, Bush gave his final approval to take the nation to war. Franks saluted the president on the screen. Bush saluted and ended the meeting.

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