Bush strikes humble pose to court critics of Iraq policy



WASHINGTON -- In the past five years, Americans have seen President Bush in many poses: tough, defiant, emotional. Last night, in a rare Oval Office address, they saw another: humble.

A president loath to concede mistakes did so. A president often dismissive of his critics embraced their right to differ. A president whose patience is easily stretched seemed to ask for empathy from others for decisions gone wrong.

While there was no substantive shift about the war in Iraq during his prime-time speech, there were stylistic ones. He was seated at his desk and let his hands do a lot of talking. His tone was softer. He seemed to be targeting those who disagree with him rather than making sure the converted stayed that way.

To be sure, there also was the now-rote certitude about the justness of the war and the resolve needed for total victory. "There is a difference between honest critics who recognize what is wrong and defeatists who refuse to see anything that is right," he said. It was also clear that the president was sticking to the notion that he is gambling his place in history on the bet that democracy in Iraq will remake the Middle East for the better.

And, many times, he used a negative to make a positive point. While acknowledging that intelligence had been faulty about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and taking responsibility for going to war under a false assumption, the president said, "It was right to move Saddam Hussein from power ... and the world is better for it."

To those who think the president's strategy is creating more problems than it is solving, Bush said, "If you think the terrorists would become peaceful if only America would stop provoking them, then it might make sense to leave them alone. This is not the threat that I see."

He said the violence Americans are seeing on newscasts belies a larger truth of more positive developments in the country.

At the same time, the president did not try to paper over Iraq's obvious problems. Rather, he said, "We have learned from our experiences and fixed what has not worked." He hinted at a reduction in U.S. forces but offered nothing that could be considered a promise.

He also asked more specifically for forbearance from his critics. "I do not expect you to support everything I do, but tonight I have a request: Do not give in to despair and do not give up on this fight for freedom."

This speech stood in marked contrast to one he gave just the day before, during a rare live weekly radio address, in which the president acknowledged and aggressively defended his decision to order domestic spying to fight terror. In that speech, he risked being seen as the ultimate Big Brother, not exactly in the Republican Party playbook that calls for a limited role for the federal government.

The decision to approve eavesdropping by presidential order rather than seeking approval of the special federal court set up for that purpose showed an extraordinary exercise of presidential power, particularly in the face of declining approval ratings and an emerging lack of confidence in his handling of the war on terror.

When Iraqis voted on their constitution in October, the administration enjoyed several triumphant weeks, only to see the insurgency eventually grow more lethal. With legislative elections last week, the administration sees another opportunity to change the conversation in Iraq from body counts to vote counts on the path to democracy.

For all the uncharacteristic nuance that the president offered last night, he also again showed a stark clarity when he said there were really only two options: "victory or defeat."

Many were the times that presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon made the same arguments during Vietnam, saying that staying the course was the only option. But the largely successful Iraqi election process provided the president with a more tangible platform to talk about the prospects in Iraq.

And he needed it. It has been a battering autumn for the president, from Hurricane Katrina to the indictment of the vice president's chief of staff, to the failure so far of Congress to reauthorize the Patriot Act. And the disclosures about domestic spying added to a negative mix.

So he did what presidents so often do: He used the Oval Office, the most powerful in the world, to try to retake the debate after criticism that the "bubble" of the presidency had insulated him from opposing views.

"He took very seriously the bubble allegations against him and decided to go out and touch the bones," said Rutgers University historian Ross K. Baker. "It's been a very difficult period of time, and I think he has decided to come out and fight.

"It's in the grand tradition of presidents to defend military engagements which have dragged on longer than anybody thought," Baker said. "Given that Americans are people who want instant gratification and the gratification is not coming instantly in Iraq, it falls to presidents to try to convince Americans to be patient."

And for that, the president needed a different pose.

Michael Tackett writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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