Bush rebuts Iraq war critics

Setting off on four-nation Asia trip, he turns Democrats' old statements against them


ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE -- With his approval ratings slipping at home, President Bush yesterday flew overseas for the second time this month - but not before taking a parting shot at critics of his Iraq policy.

Bush, who arrived in Japan this morning for a four-nation Asian swing, used a refueling stop in Alaska to accuse Democrats of "playing politics" in their accusations that the White House manipulated intelligence to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

He recited old statements from three senior Senate Democrats - John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, Carl Levin of Michigan and Harry Reid of Nevada. All three backed the war in 2001 and 2002 but have recently led the criticism that the White House misled the public when it tied Iraq to al-Qaida and said that Saddam Hussein's regime had pursued nuclear weapons.

"`I think that the president's approaching this in the right fashion,'" Bush said Reid had told CNN in 2002.

"They spoke the truth then and they're speaking politics now," the president said to cheers from U.S. airmen at Elmendorf Air Force Base.

Bush's remarks reflected a new offensive by the White House to stem the tide of sagging public support resulting from, among other things, a growing impression that the administration had misled the public in the months before going to war.

In Veterans Day remarks last week, Bush singled out his 2004 re-election challenger, Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, for shifting his stance on the war. Kerry responded yesterday with a fiery speech on the Senate floor, suggesting the president has failed to grasp that criticism of his Iraq policy is not coming just from Democrats.

"Does the president think that the many generals, former top administration officials and senators from his own party who have joined over two-thirds of the country in questioning the president's handling of the war in Iraq are all unpatriotic, too?" Kerry asked.

The drumbeat of criticism over Bush's Iraq policies has grown louder since the indictment last month of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff and one of the most vocal White House advocates for the invasion. Democrats had hoped that the investigation of the CIA leak that led to Libby's indictment would reignite a national debate over the intelligence that led to war. They accused Senate Republicans of delaying a separate inquiry into whether the administration pressured intelligence analysts to conclude that Iraq had pursued chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

White House officials point to other inquiries that found no evidence of administration pressure, including a report by a White House commission headed by retired federal judge Laurence H. Silberman, a Republican, and former Virginia governor and senator Charles S. Robb, a Democrat. The administration maintains that the president and the public were guided by the same faulty intelligence.

Still, speaking to reporters last week, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said the White House could have done a better job in making alternative views available to the president.

"What comes into the Oval Office, again, is an effort to provide a consensus judgment," Hadley said. "But I think one of the things we've all learned from that is that it is important, also, to be clear about dissenting opinions and make sure that dissenting opinions also are given visibility."

The president, meanwhile, will put the Iraq debate on the back burner during his visits to Japan, South Korea, China and Mongolia.

He is not expected to encounter the widespread anti-American protests that greeted him in Argentina two weeks ago, but Asia is full of its own pitfalls for the president's foreign policy agenda.

The nuclear ambitions of North Korea are likely to be a prime topic this week at the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference in Busan, South Korea. Other topics include preparations for a flu pandemic, the Japanese ban on U.S. beef, and the presence of U.S. military forces in the region.

Bush is facing pressure from some critics to take a harder line with China on human rights abuses. The president last week described the U.S. relationship with the communist nation as "complex," a reference to his efforts to balance China's growing economic and military power with its political system.

Although Bush's eight-day trip gives the president a pre-Thanksgiving respite from an unpleasant time in Washington, administration officials said they do not expect much of substance to be accomplished.

Peter Wallsten writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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