After maintaining a stoic, respectful silence for most of the day as he visited the three sites of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, President Bush returned to the heated rhetoric of his recent speeches, declaring during a prime-time address Monday night that the battle against radical Islam "is a struggle for civilization" that will not end until "we or the extremists emerge victorious."
The brief, 17-minute address from the Oval Office again found Bush tying the larger battle against terrorism and radical Islam to the war in Iraq, with the president admitting to mistakes that have been made in carrying out that campaign, which has so far claimed nearly 2,700 American lives — almost as many as perished in the 9/11 attacks (see "Five Things We've Learned Since 9/11").
"Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone," Bush said. "They will not leave us alone. They will follow us. The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad." He also warned that a radical Islamic network was determined to "bring death and suffering to our homes."
The speech was the latest in a series of addresses by Bush on the subject of national security and the threat posed by terrorism, a topic that has become the main White House talking point in the lead up to the upcoming mid-term Congressional election as support for the war in Iraq continues to wane (see "Why Is Congress Debating Flag-Burning Instead Of Global Warming? It's An Election Year"). Previous speeches by Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have described the war on terror as a sequel of sorts to World War II and the Cold War, with both men decrying those who don't support the terrorism fight as putting the future of American security at risk.
Saying that the 9/11 hijackers declared war on the entire world with the barbaric attacks, Bush declared that the terror strikes set off a war unlike any other in human history. "Today, we are safer, but we are not yet safe," he said. "On this solemn night, I have asked for some of your time to discuss the nature of the threat still before us, what we are doing to protect our nation, and the building of a more hopeful Middle East that holds the key to peace for America and the world."
Painting the battle in Iraq as the key to securing a safe tomorrow for future generations, Bush said during Monday night's speech that the war against global terrorism is, "the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century and the calling of our generation. ... America did not ask for this war, and every American wishes it were over. So do I. But the war is not over, and it will not be over until either we or the extremists emerge victorious. If we do not defeat these enemies now, we will leave our children to face a Middle East overrun by terrorist states and radical dictators armed with nuclear weapons. We are in a war that will set the course for this new century, and determine the destiny of millions across the world."
Though he alluded in the speech to no direct link between former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the September 11 attacks, Bush repeatedly tied the security of American citizens to the outcome of the war in Iraq. "I'm often asked why we're in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks," Bush said, "The answer is that the regime of Saddam Hussein was a clear threat. My administration, the Congress and the United Nations saw the threat. And after 9/11, Saddam's regime posed a risk that the world could not afford to take. The world is safer because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power." Now, Bush said, al Qaeda and other extremist groups have come to Iraq to try and stem the rise of democracy and foment sectarian violence.
So, a week after acknowledging the transfer of 14 terror suspects from secret CIA prisons to the U.S. prison at Guantanámo Bay, Cuba (see "Bush Admits Secret Prisons, Transfers Alleged 9/11 Plotters To Guantanamo Bay"), Bush sent a stern warning to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who has eluded U.S. capture for more than four years, as well as to other terrorist leaders: "America will find you, and we will bring you to justice."
Though partisan bickering and election-year politicking was set aside for the day to honor the 9/11 dead (see "Americans Pause To Remember 9/11"), as soon as Bush's speech was over, it flared up again, the Los Angeles Times reports. Following the speech, Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy said the president, "should be ashamed of using a national day of mourning ... to seek support for a war in Iraq that he has admitted had 'nothing' to do with 9/11."
A spokesman for House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi added, "The president's misuse of the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attack shows he'll go to any lengths to divert attention from his failures in Iraq — failures that have diverted focus from the war on terrorism."
Criticism came even from the president's own party, with former Republican House speaker and potential 2008 presidential candidate Newt Gingrich telling the mostly conservative American Enterprise Institute in a speech that, "We are not where we wanted to be nor where we need to be," according to the Times. "We have not captured Bin Laden. We have not defeated the Taliban. ... We have not stopped the recruitment of young fanatics into terrorism."
Near the end of his speech, Bush reminded Americans that following the 9/11 attacks he promised to use every weapon in the nation's arsenal to fight terrorists. "One of the strongest weapons in our arsenal is the power of freedom," he said. "The terrorists fear freedom as much as they do our firepower. They are thrown into panic at the sight of an old man pulling the election lever, girls enrolling in school, or families worshiping God in their own traditions. They know that given a choice, people will choose freedom over their extremist ideology."
In the end, he concluded, the 9/11 hijackers planned to bring America to her knees, and they succeeded, but not in the way they intended. "Americans united in prayer, came to the aid of neighbors in need, and resolved that our enemies would not have the last word," said Bush, in one of several religious allusions in the speech. "The spirit of our people is the source of America's strength. And we go forward with trust in that spirit, confidence in our purpose and faith in a loving God who made us to be free."