Bush draws Truman parallel

At West Point graduation, he compares his fight against terrorism to the Cold War

May 28, 2006|By PETER WALLSTEN | PETER WALLSTEN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Comparing his role fighting terrorism to President Truman's leadership at the beginning of the Cold War, President Bush told hundreds of new Army officers yesterday that they were entering a "great struggle" destined to persist long after he leaves office.

Bush told graduates of the U.S. Military Academy, "The final outcome depends on your leadership. The war began on my watch, but it's going to end on your watch," he said during a brief appearance under gloomy skies in West Point, N.Y., before returning to Camp David for the Memorial Day weekend. "Your generation will bring us victory in the war on terror.

"My call to you is this: Trust in the power of freedom, and be bold in freedom's defense," he added. "Show leadership and courage -- and not just on the battlefield. Take risk, try new things and challenge the established way of doing things. Trust in your convictions, stay true to yourselves -- and one day the world will celebrate your achievements."

In addressing commencement at West Point, Bush was fulfilling a tradition of speaking to graduates each year at a military academy. But yesterday's speech came as public confidence plummets in his leadership -- particularly in his policies toward Iraq.

It was no coincidence that Bush, whose approval ratings are mired in the low 30s, compared himself to Truman -- who was controversial in his time but now is viewed by many as one of the nation's great presidents.

Bush appeared with the cadets two days after he and British Prime Minister Tony Blair used a rare joint news conference to point to victories in Iraq, although they both acknowledged missteps in a war that has grown far bloodier and more protracted than either expected.

Bush's parallels with Truman underscored White House efforts to minimize the public opinion effect of day-to-day setbacks and couch the effort in broad historic terms that might help soothe discontent as Republicans seek to retain power despite a bruising campaign year.

Many surveys show the war, along with high gas prices and ethics scandals, could lead to widespread GOP losses -- potentially strangling any hope for Bush to enact his agenda during his last two years in office.

The president listed what he said were similarities between the Truman-era birth of the Cold War and his own decisions to invade Iraq: enemies, he said, who pursue a "murderous ideology that despises freedom, crushes all dissent, has territorial ambitions, and pursues totalitarian aims."

The 861 graduates -- 131 of them women -- were the first class to enter West Point after the Sept. 11 attacks that spurred the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and a broad Bush-led agenda to spread democracy.

While some college commencements this year have been marked by boos for visiting politicians, Bush received enthusiastic cheers from the Army crowd.

But in his speech, Bush conceded that danger and possibly death in war zones await the Class of 2006 -- acknowledging that West Point alumni are among the growing list of war dead.

Peter Wallsten writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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