Bush still playing the 9/11 card to justify the war in Iraq

July 01, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - In President Bush's latest effort to shore up public support for his war in Iraq, his resort once more to the memory of 9/11 reflects the difficulty he faces in selling what's happening now.

In calling on Americans to remember "the lessons of Sept. 11," he remains undeterred by findings that there was no link between the 2001 terrorist attacks and Iraq. Mr. Bush continues to rely on the specter of that horrendous day to cast the war he started as an integral part of the war on terrorism.

Though it was not that at the outset, it is undeniably so now. Iraq has become a magnet for terrorists eagerly joining the insurgency against the U.S. occupation and the new Iraqi government.

Ever since 9/11, recollection of that day has been the main crutch sustaining public support of Mr. Bush's foreign policy. In his renomination in New York last summer, and again in his re-election campaign, images and reminiscences of 9/11 were invoked repeatedly.

While the president, in his speech at Fort Bragg, N.C., stopped short of linking the 9/11 attackers with the insurgents in Iraq, the implication was there. Mr. Bush mentioned 9/11 five times in the speech, for the obvious reason that the terrorist attacks then remain the one incontrovertible unifying element at home in an otherwise controversial American military adventure.

In reminding the country that after 9/11 he had made a commitment to the American people that "this nation will not wait to be attacked again," he continued to imply, wrongly, that the invasion of Iraq was a retaliation for those terrorist attacks. It was not. It was a pre-emptive invasion of a country that had not attacked us.

So long as the notion existed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction poised against the United States, his argument for invading Iraq in self-defense had some validity. But with that rationale scuttled, the president now struggles for a credible justification for this country's actions in Iraq, especially as someone who, as a candidate in 2000, expressed firm opposition to a U.S. role as nation-builder or the world's cop.

Mr. Bush's immediate challenge in dealing with a restive home front is to convince the American public that progress is being made against the insurgency and toward stability in Iraq. But he has an uphill fight in the face of his generals saying the Iraq insurgency has not diminished over the last six months and polls indicating a majority of Americans now think the war was a mistake. Vice President Dick Cheney's remark that the insurgency is "in its last throes" certainly hasn't helped.

But Mr. Bush is resolute in refusing to set a timetable for withdrawing American troops. With excessive rhetoric, he has committed himself to creating democracy in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, though neither argument was an original justification for expending so many American lives and so much treasure.

Appeals to patriotism have been at the heart of the Bush quest for public support from the start. The Bush strategists apparently sought to use that card again by staging the president's speech at a military base before a hall full of Army officers and enlisted men. But the troops sat silently when Mr. Bush entered, and interrupted only once with applause, when he said, "We will stay in the fight until the fight is won."

As pressures rise even within his own party, the president will not quell the growing unease with speeches about progress that don't square with what is being seen on the nation's television screens and newspaper front pages. And he can't keep relying on 9/11 to keep unquestioning patriotism high.

The polls confirm that the American people aren't demanding an abrupt pullout. But they need more straight talk from a president who has studiously avoided it about this elective war that is increasingly trying their patience.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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