Bush calls protesters wrong

President leaving D.C. as anti-Iraq war demonstrations gearing up

September 23, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, facing waning public support for the Iraq war as thousands gather for peace protests here, said yesterday that an American withdrawal would allow terrorists to decare "an historic victory over the United States."

Bush plans to leave town before the onset of this weekend's antiwar demonstrations. In remarks at the Pentagon, he acknowledged that "there are differences of opinion about the way forward" in Iraq.

But he took issue with those pressing to bring home U.S. troops now, as demanded by organizers of the protest and those scheduled to speak, such as Cindy Sheehan, the bereaved mother-turned-peace activist.

"I recognize their good intentions, but their position is wrong. Withdrawing our troops would make the world more dangerous and make America less safe," Bush said.

Leaving Iraq now would "repeat the costly mistakes" that led to the 9/11 attacks, he said.

Bush's comments about the war followed briefings from his military commanders on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. They were designed to address the slippage in public support for his handling of national security issues, which opinion surveys show has fallen along with the president's overall approval ratings.

Bush is at his lowest point in the polls, after a rough summer in which Sheehan's presence outside his East Texas ranch embodied angry opposition to the war.

National surveys show Bush's popularity hovering in the low 40s, with as many as two-thirds disapproving of his handling of the war and nearly that many advocating a withdrawal of U.S. troops. The declines come as the casualty count for U.S. troops in Iraq just passed 1,900 dead.

Antiwar activists are hoping to take advantage of the bad news for Bush with a series of events, including a march tomorrow on the National Mall, a Sunday interfaith service, a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill on Monday and tutorials in how to counter military recruitment on high school and college campuses.

"We put this on the calendar in March, not realizing that it would come at a time like this, but as the summer wore on, we saw there was a lot of momentum developing behind the idea of ending this war," said Bill Dobbs, a spokesman for United for Peace and Justice, a main sponsor of tomorrow's demonstration, which will take marchers on a route near the White House.

Organizers expect more than 100,000 people to show up for this weekend's protests, but it's unclear how much of an impact they will have, with the likelihood that activists will be competing for public attention from a nation riveted by Hurricane Rita's impact on the Gulf Coast.

Still, the anti-war group and other, smaller organizations across the country, with the backing of liberal groups such as MoveOn .org, hope to seize on the moment to "turn up the heat on the president and the Congress to end this war," Dobbs said.

White House aides, chastened by the public outcry in Katrina's wake and eager to burnish Bush's image, planned for the president to miss the peace protests as he tends to relief efforts and reviews preparations for Hurricane Rita's anticipated strike.

Asked whether anyone on Bush's team would be on hand to respond to the protesters, Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary said, "Frankly, we've been focused on these hurricanes.

"People are welcome to express their views, but we've got a lot of things we're focused on right now," he said.

Still, Bush's appearance at the Pentagon was timed, in part, to remind the public that, in his words, "our focus on defending our country remains undiminished."

Criticized in the past for giving an overly sunny assessment of the situation in Iraq, Bush offered a dose of realism in his latest comments, saying that Americans "must be prepared for more violence."

Bush and his advisers "have begun to realize that a military victory in the near term is going to be very, very difficult to achieve, so he's trying to set expectations for the American public that this is not going to go away," said Seth Jones, an analyst at the RAND Corporation.

Dampening hopes of quick success is important for Bush, Jones sadi, because research shows that it takes an average of nine years to squelch such an insurgency.

"These are very long-term wars," he said.

At the same time, Bush faces a stiff challenge in avoiding further erosion in support for the war, even as he acknowledges its steep costs.

"The big problem that the Bush administration has is that the costs of the war are visible and quantitative [while] the gains of the war are opaque and hard to quantify," said Scott Sigmund Gartner, a University of California Davis political scientist.

The problem is particularly nettlesome for members of Congress who face re-election, said Gartner. He said there's reason to believe that "senators from states that have higher casualty rates and are in support of the war will do worse in the next election."

During the Vietnam War, senators whose states suffered more casualties were more likely to turn against the conflict, said Gartner.

Anti-war activists hope to capitalize on such fears to spark a backlash in Congress against the war.

"You don't get a serious consideration of a need for a change in policy without there being first a visible change in the tide of public opinion and an active antiwar movement," said Paul Joseph, a Tufts University sociologist who studies peace movements and plans to attend the protests.

But it's difficult to translate public skepticism and animated opposition into an end to the war, Joseph said: "It can take a very long time."

Despite declining support for the war and a flurry of recent attention to antiwar protesters, there's no sign that Bush is seriously considering a change of course in Iraq.

julie.davis@baltsun.com

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