Invoking the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 five times, President Bush took to the airwaves Tuesday night in an attempt to bolster sagging support for the war in Iraq.
At times contradicting recent statements by his own vice president and secretary of defense, the president gave a sober, stern-faced assessment of how long U.S. troops could remain in the conflict and urged Americans to support their military over the July 4 holiday weekend by flying flags and writing to soldiers.
"I recognize that Americans want our troops to come home as quickly as possible," said the president in his 30-minute speech. "So do I." Standing in front of more than 740 uniformed members of the military at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, the speech comes as the president's approval rating has hit an all-time low and polls show that a majority of Americans feel the war was not worth starting and that it has not made the country safer from terrorist attacks (see "Polls: Americans Tiring Of Iraq War, Less Happy With Bush").
"Like most Americans, I see the images of violence and bloodshed," said Bush. "Amid all this violence, I know Americans ask the question: Is the sacrifice worth it? It is worth it, and it is vital to the future security of our country." A year after the U.S. turned sovereignty over to the Iraqis and two years into the conflict that has taken the lives of more than 1,700 U.S. soldiers, Bush sent a message that America needs to stay in Iraq because fighting for freedom is the price we must pay to prevent another attack like 9/11.
The president's critics have repeatedly decried his attempts to connect the war in Iraq to 9/11 — no Iraqi ties to al Qaeda have been established — yet the speech opened with a link between the September 11 attacks and the current conflict, calling Iraq the "latest battlefield" in this war on terrorism and, at one point, quoting Osama bin Laden. "The war reached our shores on September 11, 2001," Bush said. "The terrorists who attacked us and the terrorists we face murder in the name of a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom, rejects tolerance and despises all dissent. Their aim is to remake the Middle East in their own grim image of tyranny and oppression by toppling governments, by driving us out of the region and by exporting terror."
"We fight today, because Iraq now carries the hope of freedom in a vital region of the world, and the rise of democracy will be the ultimate triumph over radicalism and terror," Bush said. "And we fight today because terrorists want to attack our country and kill our citizens, and Iraq is where they are making their stand ... So we will fight them there ... and we will stay in the fight until the fight is won."
Responding directly to his critics, Bush acknowledged that the fight has been difficult, but he said that setting a timetable for withdrawal would be a "serious mistake" that sends the wrong message to the Iraqis and to the insurgents. "Our strategy can be summed up this way: As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," Bush said. Instead, he explained, the U.S. must continue to train Iraqi soldiers so that they can eventually take over peacekeeping duties.
Bush also said that sending more troops would be a mistake, explaining that his generals have told him they have enough troops and a further build-up would suggest that the U.S. intends to stay in Iraq "forever." He gave a few details on plans to train Iraqi fighters, including more training alongside U.S. forces.
Several of Bush's comments appeared to be aimed at counteracting a recent claim by Vice President Dick Cheney that the deadly insurgency in Iraq was in its "last throes."
Acknowledging for one of the first times that public support for the war is waning, Bush called the pictures of casualties "horrifying" and said this is a conflict that "demands much of us," specifically the "perseverance of our citizens."
But even in front of a hand-picked group of military officers, the commander in chief was met with stony silence as he entered the hall and the rallying speech featured only one applause line, which, according to a commentator on CBS, was initiated by one of the president's advance staff.
"We know that when the work is hard, the proper response is not retreat, it is courage," president Bush said. "And we know that this great ideal of human freedom is entrusted to us in a special way, and that the ideal of liberty is worth defending."
Among the pleas Bush made in the speech were requests to fly flags over the holiday weekend and write letters to troops, as well as a call for military service among Americans at a time when recruitment has hit historic lows (see "Army Recruitment Down For Fourth Consecutive Month").
"When the history of this period is written, the liberation of Afghanistan and the liberation of Iraq will be remembered as great turning points in the story of freedom," Bush said in conclusion. "After September 11, 2001, I told the American people that the road ahead would be difficult and that we would prevail. Well, it has been difficult and we are prevailing. Our enemies are brutal, but they are no match for the United States of America, and they are no match for the men and women of the United States military."