America safer, not yet safe, Bush says

As Sept. 11 nears, he defends policy on Iraq, terrorism

September 06, 2006|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- Invoking the words of terrorists as a reminder of lingering threats, President Bush launched a pre-Sept. 11 push yesterday to defend his national security policies, which are under increasing attack from Democrats in the 2006 election campaign.

The weeklong public relations offensive leading up to Monday's fifth anniversary of the 2001 attacks is part of an effort designed to reframe Bush's arguments for the war, his advisers said. At the same time, Republicans in Congress are pushing an agenda dominated by security issues, which they hope to use to paint Democrats as soft on terrorism.

"[Osama] bin Laden and his terrorist allies have made their intentions as clear as Lenin and Hitler before them," Bush said in a speech to military officers here. "The question is: `Will we listen? Will we pay attention to what these evil men say?'"

Even Bush's top advisers acknowledged that the president is not offering fresh plans about how to turn things around in Iraq or keep Americans safe. The White House released a 23-page summary of the U.S. approach to combating terrorism, but the document did not outline changes in strategy since the last such draft in February 2003.

"It's the way we've framed it ... that makes it different," Frances Fragos Townsend, the White House homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, told reporters. "What we've talked about is giving you a better framework, I think, based on our understanding and all the things we've heard and seen from al-Qaida and their reactions to the war effort."

Townsend said the report includes more details on what is being done to keep weapons of mass destruction out of terrorists' hands and a recognition that today's threats stem more from a loosely affiliated network than a centralized terrorist group. Both were elements of the 2003 report. The newly released version declares, "America is safer, but we are not yet safe."

Bush is to continue his communications effort with remarks at the White House today and in a speech tomorrow in the Atlanta area, building up to appearances Sunday and Monday at each of the three sites hit on Sept. 11, 2001 - the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan, in Shanksville, Pa., and the Pentagon in Northern Virginia.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada predicted that the escalating violence in Iraq would prevent Republicans from scoring points against his party on security issues for the third national election in a row.

"They've run this play one too many times," Reid said. "It's the same speeches that they've given before, and all the speeches in the world don't change what's happening on the ground in Iraq."

With opinion polls showing that Americans are increasingly discouraged about the war and doubtful that Bush has a plan to win, the president worked to recast the conflict - using broad themes and historical analogies - as part of a struggle between good and evil that would lead to a hopeful outcome.

"Five years after our nation was attacked, the terrorist danger remains. We're a nation at war," he told a Washington audience that included camouflage-clad officers. "We know what the terrorists intend to do because they've told us. And we need to take their words seriously."

Quoting liberally from Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders, Bush said that terrorists view Iraq as their "central battlefield" and must be confronted there.

"I know some of our country hear the terrorist words and hope that they will not or cannot do what they say. History teaches that underestimating the words of evil and ambitious men is a terrible mistake," the president said.

Bush is working to burnish his party's image by trying to convince those without strong partisan opinions that the war in Iraq is inextricably tied to the fight against terrorism, said Robert M. Entman, a professor at George Washington University.

"It's not that they're going to convince everybody, but their goal is to create enough uncertainty among the less attentive people who aren't completely convinced that Bush is wonderful and aren't really convinced about the opposite," said Entman, who studies how the news media and politicians frame issues.

The president has succeeded at the strategy before, Entman said. "They're not trying to win here, they're just trying to minimize the damage, and I think they've been incredibly good at doing that."

Democrats countered by releasing a report by the liberal Third Way National Security Project, which used statistics illustrating the stepped-up pace of attacks in Iraq and the swelling ranks of al-Qaida to argue that Bush's foreign policy has failed.

Democrats also renewed calls for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to resign and announced plans to force a Senate vote on his ouster as early as today as one of a series in both chambers orchestrated to raise questions about Bush's policy on Iraq.

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