World War III

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, June 29, 2005; 1:20 PM

President Bush last night offered no new evidence to dissuade the growing majorities of Americans who believe that the United States is bogged down in Iraq, that the war was a mistake in the first place, and that he has no clear plan to bring troops home.

His prime-time speech did, however, contain a bold rhetorical shift. The president who took his country to war in Iraq on account of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, then recast the invasion as a pro-democracy move, is now arguing that Iraq is ground zero for World War III, the battle against terror that began on Sept. 11, 2001.

And having failed to capture or kill the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, the president who has been notoriously averse to even mentioning his name out loud last night actually quoted Osama bin Laden in support of the speech's central argument.

"Hear the words of Osama bin Laden," Bush said: " 'This Third World War is raging' in Iraq."

Aside from Bush's repeated invocation of Sept. 11, there was no looking back in his speech, and certainly no admission of error. No acknowledgement that his fixation on Iraq may have let bin Laden get away, or that his own acts created the conditions in Iraq in which terrorists and their supporters are flourishing.

There was also no talk of the unfound weapons of mass destruction, or of the growing credibility gap fueled in part by the Downing Street memos, which suggest that Bush misled the public about Iraq in the run-up to a war that he craved.

And in spite of all the clamoring, there was no exit strategy. Although press secretary Scott McClellan had promised that Bush would "talk in a very specific way about the way forward," the only forward-looking talk was incredibly vague.

"We're building up Iraqi security forces as quickly as possible," Bush said. "We will stay in Iraq as long as we are needed, and not a day longer."

Bush was greeted with stony, untelegenic silence by the troops the White House had gathered at Ft. Bragg to serve as his audience. There was only one outburst of applause, apparently provoked by a member of Bush's own advance team.

Here's the text of the speech. Here are overviews from Peter Baker and Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, David E. Sanger of the New York Times, and Paul Richter and Edwin Chen of the Los Angeles Times.

Live Online

I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET, eager to respond to your reactions to and questions about the speech.

The 9/11 Allusions

Dan Balz writes in a Washington Post news analysis that Bush's "clearest message was to argue anew that Iraq is the critical battle in a war against terrorists that began with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He made repeated references to those attacks to underscore that U.S. security depends on defeating the insurgency in Iraq. 'After September the 11th, I made a commitment to the American people,' he said. 'This nation will not wait to be attacked again. We will defend our freedom. We will take the fight to the enemy.' He then added, 'Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war.' "Sept. 11 remains Bush's most reliable argument with the public when he faces political headwinds; it gave him the highest-rated moments of his presidency and helped sustain him through a difficult reelection campaign. Surprisingly, given how effectively he has used the collective emotion of that day in the past, Sept. 11 has been largely missing in the administration's discussions of Iraq this year."

Craig Gordon writes in Newsday: "In the past, when sagging polls have put President George W. Bush in trouble, he has invoked the event that shaped his presidency to confront critics and rally public support, the Sept. 11 attacks.

"He did it again last night, wrapping the Iraq war in the mantle of 9/11 to reject calls for an exit timetable and appeal for patience from an increasingly skeptical public. Never forget 'the lessons of September the 11th,' Bush warned, or risk handing victory in Iraq to the likes of Osama bin Laden.

"It was Bush's most direct and high-profile link between Iraq and Sept. 11 since winning re-election - and as usual, he failed to mention that the Sept. 11 commission found no credible evidence linking the former Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein and the 2001 terror attacks."

Rick Klein writes in the Boston Globe: "For members of Congress who have clamored for President Bush to lay out a concrete plan for success in Iraq, his address to the nation was a disappointment that came under quick and harsh criticism -- particularly for its repeated, overt references to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"Democrats accused Bush of using slogans to obscure a series of failures in the war."

Susan Milligan writes in the Boston Globe: "Dan Bartlett, a chief aide to Bush, acknowledged that there was no connection between Hussein and September 11, but said the comparison was fair because they were both part of a threat from terrorists nurtured in the Middle East.

" 'You can't delink the two, because foreign policy had to change after our nation was attacked,' Bartlett said. 'Sixty years of tolerance and excuse-making by Western nations had to change, and it is changing.' "

Terrorist Haven? Since When?

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush on Tuesday retooled his original argument for the Iraq war, justifying the U.S. military presence there as the solution to a problem that critics say the war itself caused.

"More than two years ago, Bush argued that Saddam Hussein's control over Iraq could make the nation a haven for terrorists. But in his nationally televised speech, Bush asserted that the tumult that has followed Hussein's removal created the same threat."

Brownstein writes that "mostly Bush defended the war as a means of preventing another terrorist attack on the United States. The most striking argument Bush offered for his policy in Iraq was that the Mideast nation could become a sanctuary for terrorists if U.S. forces withdrew. . . .

"That argument drew instant scorn from some Democrats, who argued that Bush was defending the continued military operations on the basis of a threat that did not exist before the invasion."

Peter S. Canellos writes in the Boston Globe: "In a bold redefinition of a war that began primarily as an attempt to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, President Bush yesterday said Iraq is where the United States will make its stand against terrorists from around the world who flowed into the country after the fall of Saddam Hussein. . . .

"There was no discussion, however, of how those fighters slipped through borders that US forces failed to secure, or any other flaws in postwar planning."

And, Cannellos writes: "It is a compelling argument, but like so much about Iraq, it may be less simple than Bush is making it. Most military specialists count the numbers of foreign fighters in the hundreds or low thousands; a larger part of the insurgency is powered by thousands of Iraqi fighters, mostly Sunni nationalists in the volatile Al Anbar Province. Their aim is not to pursue terrorism against the United States. It is to achieve a Sunni-led Iraq or, failing that, a separate Sunni nation."

Christopher Cooper and John D. McKinnon write in the Wall Street Journal: "Among Americans, however, there has been a debate over whether the Iraq war represents a blow against terrorism or a distraction from it."

Familiar Lines

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "It was, in essence, a repeat of a speech he delivered 13 months ago, when he assured the nation during an appearance at the Army War College that while the job of achieving stability in Iraq would be hard, he had a plan - and the United States had the will - to see it through. . . .

"The questions now are how many more times over how many years he might have to deliver the same message of patience and resolve - and whether the American public, confronted with a mounting death toll, an open-ended military commitment, lack of support from allies and a growing price tag, will accept it."

Not Must-See TV

TV critic Tom Shales writes in The Washington Post that "since the military men and women were technically at attention, noted anchor Brian Williams of NBC News, they didn't even applaud when Bush walked onstage to deliver the address.

"The sole supportive interruption followed a sequence in which Bush built to the line, 'We will stay in the fight until the fight is won.' NBC's Kelly O'Donnell, reporting from Fort Bragg, told Williams afterward that the applause appeared to have been 'triggered by members of the president's advance team' and that once they began clapping, the soldiers joined in. . . .

"This was not a major speech by Bush, nor was it particularly well delivered until the end, when he seemed to be straining to hold back his emotions as he spoke of the U.S. troops fighting and dying in Iraq."

But, Shales notes: "Having made the decision to carry the speech, NBC and CBS could hardly then come on the air and say it wasn't important. So, whatever they thought, anchors and reporters treated the speech as a news event."

Paul Brownfield writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Five years into his presidency, Bush still conveys the sense that a speech is something he is trying to get through rather than deliver. Tuesday night, with the networks' attention once again undivided, his poll numbers down and the war in need of his public relations help, he still wasn't must-see TV."

Echoes of LBJ

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle that the speech could widen Bush's credibility gap, and he finds some "striking rhetorical similarities" with a speech President Lyndon Johnson delivered in 1968, after the Tet offensive.

Fact Check

Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "In his speech last night, President Bush ignored some uncomfortable facts about the U.S. enterprise in Iraq and overstated the extent of overseas support."

Insta Reactions

Bill Schneider and Aaron Brown discussed a Gallup insta-poll in the wake of the speech last night on CNN. Some 46 percent of those polled had a very positive reaction to the speech -- but as Schneider noted, the poll tilted heavily towards Republicans. Schneider explained the fascinating reasons why:

"Now, this not a random sample of the American public. People who watched the president's speech were more likely to be Republicans. . . .

"And here's something interesting . . . a thousand people told us -- told the Gallup poll that they intended to watch the speech. But when we contacted them after the speech, only a third of them actually watched. There are a lot of other things people do on a summer evening."

Kirk Johnson writes in the New York Times: "Hearing the president declare that 'we have a clear path forward,' a sampling of people across the country who . . . have been part of the mission in Iraq, expressed wide support for the troops, but some concern about the mission's execution and its conclusion."

Tim Whitmire writes in the Associated Press: "For those Americans with the greatest stake in the outcome of the war in Iraq -- the people fighting it -- President Bush's call Tuesday to stay the course brought mostly sober nods of agreement."

Editorial Roundup

The Washington Post : "Mr. Bush didn't explain how a war meant to remove a tyrant believed to wield weapons of mass destruction turned into a fight against Muslim militants, a transformation caused in part by his administration's many errors since Saddam Hussein's defeat more than two years ago. . . .

"The president's evasion of the hardest facts about Iraq is coupled with a reluctance to candidly describe the likely price of success -- though Mr. Bush did make an appeal last night for military service."

The New York Times : "We did not expect Mr. Bush would apologize for the misinformation that helped lead us into this war, or for the catastrophic mistakes his team made in running the military operation. But we had hoped he would resist the temptation to raise the bloody flag of 9/11 over and over again to justify a war in a country that had nothing whatsoever to do with the terrorist attacks. We had hoped that he would seize the moment to tell the nation how he will define victory, and to give Americans a specific sense of how he intends to reach that goal - beyond repeating the same wishful scenario that he has been describing since the invasion.

"Sadly, Mr. Bush wasted his opportunity last night, giving a speech that only answered questions no one was asking."

The Los Angeles Times : "President Bush's pep talk to the nation Tuesday night was a major disappointment. He again rewrote history by lumping together the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the need for war in Iraq, when, in fact, Saddam Hussein's Iraq had no connection to Al Qaeda. Bush spoke of 'difficult and dangerous' work in Iraq that produces 'images of violence and bloodshed,' but he glossed over the reality of how bad the situation is. He offered no benchmarks to measure the war's progress, falling back on exhortations to 'complete the mission' with a goal of withdrawing troops 'as soon as possible.' " The Chicago Tribune : "Bush needed to explain that the mission in Iraq has great long-term value for this country and that his administration has a strategy to succeed there. The president argued both lines of thought. But he wisely avoided the self-imposed treachery of timetables, he mouthed no empty promise about when peace would be at hand. . . .

"[Abu Musab] Zarqawi and the other architects of attacks in Iraq have done a superb job of filling our television screens with images of violence and death. Their successes have stripped the war effort here of some support.

"Tuesday night, in response, Bush tried to help his countrymen see that orchestrated violence as an effort to intimidate them."

USA Today : "Bush's half-hour speech outlined a sound, steadfast approach to dealing with the mess that Iraq has become. But whether it can stem erosion in support for the war remains to be seen. There was no acknowledgement of the misjudgments that many Americans now see plainly, but Bush seems unable or unwilling to recognize."

Baltimore Sun : "Mr. Bush addressed the nation last night in an attempt to rally support for his policy on Iraq, and instead it became disturbingly clear that the events of the past two years have barely made an impression on him.

"He was right about one thing: that an abrupt U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would be a humiliating disaster. But nothing he said last night should lead anyone to suspect that he has a better idea."

Hawking a Web Site

Jeff Zeleny writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Bush asked Americans to log on to AmericaSupportsYou.mil , a Department of Defense Web site, and register support for the troops. . . .

"The technology resembles the Bush campaign's Internet site from last year's presidential race. Like the Bush 2004 site, the pages are chock-full of good news and smiling pictures. And dissenting views on the war are not allowed."

As of 11 a.m. ET today, the site boasted 73,216 messages received -- but only 25,913 were viewable by the public .

And indeed, none of the messages I saw expressed any reservation about the war effort whatsoever.

Searching for the word shame, for instance, you find things like: "The media definitely doesn't tell of all the good they are doing. What a shame."

Searching for the word rotten, you get: "Don't let the rotten news from home get you down . . . it's only the dirty press looking for headlines."

And searching for the word quagmire, you get nothing.

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