White House tries to reframe the war debate

Bush using Vietnam analogy ahead of Iraq progress report

August 23, 2007|By Maura Reynolds and James Gerstenzang | Maura Reynolds and James Gerstenzang,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- With just three weeks to go before a critical progress report to Congress on Iraq, the White House has launched a new effort to frame the debate by casting the war in historical terms.

The opening event was a speech yesterday by President Bush at the Veterans of Foreign Wars annual convention, in which he argued that the history of U.S. action in Asia -- particularly in Vietnam and Japan -- holds lessons for the current conflict.

Bush plans to follow up with an address Tuesday to the American Legion in Reno, Nev., in which he will discuss the Iraq war in the context of the Middle East.

The message, the president and his advisers say, is that just as the United States succeeded in bringing democracy and prosperity to Asia, it can do the same in Iraq.

"The advance of freedom in these lands should give us confidence that the hard work we are doing in the Middle East can have the same results we've seen in Asia and elsewhere, if we show the same perseverance and the same sense of purpose," the president said yesterday.

The speech essentially was a repackaging of themes Bush long has articulated: The outcome of the Iraq war is critical to the future security of the United States, and it would dishonor U.S. servicemen and women to withdraw.

"As they take the initiative from the enemy, they have a question: Will their elected leaders in Washington pull the rug out from under them just as they're gaining momentum and changing the dynamic on the ground in Iraq?" Bush said. "My answer is clear: We'll support our troops, we'll support our commanders, and we will give them everything they need to succeed."

The newest element in the president's communications strategy was a willingness to discuss Vietnam, a conflict that critics of the Iraq war often cite in suggesting that the United States should cut its losses in Iraq and begin withdrawing.

Bush has been skittish in the past about analogies to the Vietnam War, largely because of the negative connotations the war continues to hold for many Americans.

"One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like boat people, re-education camps and killing fields," Bush said.

Aides said the president felt it was necessary to revamp his message in the weeks before Gen. David H. Petraeus delivers a progress report mandated by Congress. White House counselor Ed Gillespie and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove worked with the president on the speech. There was a sense in the White House that the president's rhetoric on Iraq, while consistent, was becoming somewhat repetitive.

"The repetition is necessary and by design," White House communications director Kevin Sullivan said in an interview. "However, the president was aware of wanting to set the table for the upcoming report and the discussion that will follow it in a new way that was both compelling and illustrative."

A former official who left the White House recently said the new communications strategy was based on two arguments the administration had been making for a long time: "One, we can win. And in past cases, such as Korea or Japan, people who made confident predictions about the impossibility of succeeding were eventually proven wrong. Two, the consequences of failure are so bad we should be willing to pay a price to win," the former official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is no longer permitted to speak for the administration.

What's different, the former official said, is that the president is taking a perceived weakness -- historical comparisons to Vietnam -- and turning it into a strength.

"Vietnam has been wrung around the administration's neck on Iraq for a long time," he said. "There are many analogies or comparisons or connections that could cut against the administration's position, but this is a connection that supports the administration's position. ... They want to say: The last time you took a drastic option like abandoning our allies, it didn't work well; let's take a more measured one. They're setting that up."

A secondary communications effort got under way from a different quarter of the Republican Party yesterday as the nonprofit group Freedom's Watch launched a $15 million television ad campaign to support the Bush administration's position on Iraq.

The group, headed by two former Bush administration officials -- Bradley Blakeman, a former senior assistant to Bush, and Ari Fleischer, Bush's former spokesman -- is funded through private donations.

"Those who want to quit while victory is possible have dominated the public debate about terror and Iraq since the 2004 election. ... Freedom's Watch is going to change that," Blakeman said in a statement.

The group did not specify which members of Congress would be targeted by the ads, and Blakeman and Fleischer did not respond to calls seeking comment. But anti-war groups said 90 percent of the group's targets are Republicans, mostly moderates and mavericks who have expressed doubts about the course of the war.

"There are 41 politicians covered by their buys, and 37 of them are Republicans," said Tom Mattzie, Washington director of MoveOn.org and campaign director for Americans Against Escalation in Iraq.

"Their theory is that they are providing support" for those Republicans, Mattzie said, but he predicted that the ads would backfire: "More Iraq on TV is bad news for Republicans in Congress. All people are going to see is more people hurt by the war."

Maura Reynolds and James Gerstenzang write for the Los Angeles Times.

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