President addresses war critics in speech

Bush acknowledges Iraq problems but pleads for patience

December 19, 2005|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- President Bush declared in a nationally televised address last night that the United States is winning the war in Iraq but acknowledged that U.S. deaths in an unexpectedly difficult conflict there have "led some to ask if we are creating more problems than we are solving."

Bush also spoke directly to opponents of the war, assuring them that he had heard their "disagreement" and knew "how deeply it is felt." In a rare prime-time speech, his first on Iraq since the 2003 invasion, Bush pleaded for patience as he sought to win back waning public trust in his war policy.

Sounding an unusually modest tone, he conceded that there are "questions about the cost and direction" of the war and that it is "controversial." But he was unyielding in his defense of his policy.

"To retreat before victory would be an act of recklessness and dishonor, and I will not allow it," he said at one point in the 17-minute speech.

He declared last week's Iraqi elections "a landmark day in the history of liberty" and criticized "defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right."

The address was the capstone of a two-week public-relations effort by Bush to present a rationale for a continuing U.S. troop presence in Iraq amid calls for reducing those forces. In line with his earlier speeches, Bush's address to the nation was marked by rare acknowledgments of mistakes and challenges - this by a president who seldom concedes errors or betrays doubt.

He said he was "responsible" for the decision to invade Iraq using botched intelligence. He also acknowledged that post-invasion operations in Iraq had been "more difficult than we expected," that there had been setbacks in reconstruction efforts and in the training of Iraqi forces. At another point, he referred to "corruption" and the need to improve Iraq's police forces.

"I ask all of you listening to carefully consider the stakes of this war, to realize how far we have come and the good we are doing, and to have patience in this difficult, noble and necessary cause," Bush said.

The president worked to keep the focus on Iraq one day after he acknowledged that he personally authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop secretly on suspected terrorists inside the United States without warrants - a practice whose legality was questioned by senior lawmakers who say it should be investigated by Congress.

Democrats immediately criticized Bush's speech, saying he had failed to level with Americans. Some renewed their calls for an exit strategy.

Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said he appreciated Bush's "increased candor" but faulted him for failing to say "what benchmarks we must meet along the way to know that progress is being made and that our brave troops can begin to come home."

In his address, Bush alluded to a withdrawal of U.S. forces, expected to begin slowly in the aftermath of last week's election. But he offered no specifics.

Democratic Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, who has proposed removing U.S. troops by the end of next year, said Bush should recognize that the task of U.S. forces in Iraq "is now largely over." The president should give "a flexible timeline for redeploying our troops from Iraq so that we can focus on" fighting terrorist networks, he added.

Republican Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, echoed other Republicans who praised Bush's speech. Bush gave "a brave and bold vision for the future of Iraq," Frist said in a statement. "While the fight ahead will remain a challenge, it's critical to our continued successes in the war on terror."

Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, who represents Western Maryland, said Bush should talk in greater detail about what has to happen before American troops can leave Iraq.

"The American people would like to have a more definitive list of the signs of progress," he said. "We need to persevere until [Iraqis] have a chance on their own, and then we need to stop being part of the problem and get out."

Bush described the war in unusually personal terms, laying out what he said were his beliefs about defending the nation in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

He spoke about "the threat I see," acknowledged that "some of my decisions have led to terrible loss," and spoke directly to his critics, saying, "I don't expect you to support everything I do," but asking them not to "give up on this fight for freedom."

"My conviction comes down to this," Bush said, defending his decision to invade Iraq as a necessary step to meet threats head-on in a dangerous era. "We do not create terrorism by fighting the terrorists. We invite terrorism by ignoring them."

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