Bush admits missteps in Iraq
He says U.S. still can win in spite of miscalculations
WASHINGTON - President Bush may be making his last, best case for the war in Iraq, but to growing ranks of skeptics it's the same old argument.
Heading into midterm elections in two weeks with his party's control of Congress at stake, the president faced a news conference Wednesday with a humble acknowledgment that "I owe an explanation to the American people."
He admitted miscalculations in the invasion of Iraq and disappointments after more than three years there, and he offered a rare acknowledgment of the American body count in this, the deadliest month for U.S. forces in a year. But Bush's explanation that Iraq is central to a broader war against terrorism, and that a withdrawal from Iraq would invite greater danger at home, remained unchanged from the "stay the course" argument that he had made for months.
What has changed, along with the president's new rhetoric about "flexibility" in adapting to the changing dynamics of the war, is a political environment in which Republicans once confident of long-term dominance in Washington now fear loss of power.
With respected leaders within his own Republican Party increasingly speaking publicly and privately of alternative courses for the war, and Democrats vowing that a bipartisan consensus for change is coming should they gain control in Congress on Nov. 7, the president in effect is making a last-ditch argument for giving him and the GOP a chance to prove the war is winnable.
Asked who should be held accountable for failures in the war, Bush pointed to himself.
"The ultimate accountability . . . rests with me," Bush said in an East Room news conference, his second in a month, a rarity of its own. "That's the ultimate," Bush said. "You're asking about accountability. . . . Rests right here. It's what the 2004 campaign was about. . . . If people are unhappy about it, look right to the president."
Although acknowledging misjudgments, including bad intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq cited as a rationale for the U.S.-led invasion and "overestimating" the ability of Iraqis to maintain "essential services" afterward, he also issued a somber report in terms that even the military tries to avoid: "This month, we've lost 93 American service members in Iraq, the most since October of 2005."
Yet Bush maintained that Iraq has not fallen into "full-scale" civil war, and he pledged that American soldiers will not sit in the "crossfire" of such a conflict. He also insisted that the war the U.S. is waging, with a goal of making the Iraqi government capable of securing and managing its own nation and preventing terrorists from taking their fight to American shores, is winnable.
"Absolutely, we're winning," Bush said, citing al-Qaida operatives and a "mastermind" of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, who now await trial by U.S. military tribunals.
"I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq," the president said. "I'm not satisfied, either. . . . But we cannot allow our dissatisfaction to turn into disillusionment about our purpose."
Abandoning public appeals to "stay the course," once intended as a demonstration of his resolve for victory, the president now is attempting to underscore an openness to changing tactics. "As the enemy shifts tactics, we are shifting our tactics, as well," he said. "Our commanders on the ground are constantly adjusting our tactics to stay ahead of our enemies."
But analysts say that nothing really has changed in the Bush administration's strategy of supporting a government that appears unable to manage its warring factions.
"There was no change in strategy that was at all apparent in this speech," Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, said of Bush's news conference.
"The American people want to hear that he understands (mistakes were made)," he said. "Otherwise, they will think he's loony. But they want to hear not only the mistakes that were made but here is how we are going to fix them."