Bush steps up sales push to sustain his surge in Iraq

President George W. Bush speaks at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention.
President George W. Bush speaks at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention. Jill Toyoshiba/Kansas City Star

WASHINGTON — President Bush stepped up his high-pressure sales job Wednesday to stay the course in Iraq, illustrating how the administration is both shifting the goalposts it once set for measuring success there and changing the political dynamic inside Congress on what to do about it.

Bush now seems likely to prevail when Congress resumes wrestling about Iraq in September, for reports of limited military progress in Iraq have stiffened Republicans' support for Bush's policy while putting Democrats on the defensive. Without more Republican support, Democrats can't overcome Bush's veto power to force a change in policy.

“Our troops are seeing this progress that is being made on the ground,” Bush declared in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City, Mo., the first in a new round of speeches on the war. “And 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’s argument underscores the high stakes in Washington as lawmakers await a Sept. 11 report by Gen. David Petraeus on the president’s troop-surge policy. Recent reports that the U.S. surge has helped tamp down violence, reduced civilian deaths and forged an alliance with Sunni tribal chiefs in Anbar province against al Qaida in Iraq have made pro-withdrawal U.S. lawmakers vulnerable to political attack.

Bush voiced confidence that the surge is working, even while admitting frustration about the lack of progress toward political reconciliation in Iraq. That was supposed to be the key measure of the surge’s success, the administration had said early this year when it launched the plan. The surge was supposed to ease security stress enough for Iraq's rival factions to begin cooperating. That hasn't happened.

The shifting military and political landscape was evident in Bush’s assessment Wednesday of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. One day after implicitly faulting Maliki for failing to foster progress toward political reconciliation, Bush offered a full-throated endorsement of him, calling him a “good guy, a good man with a difficult job.”

Reports of tactical military progress haven’t changed Democrats’ plans to hold more House and Senate votes on deadlines for U.S. troop withdrawal when they return in September. But those reports have dampened Democrats' prospects of getting more Republicans to join them. That means that Bush, wielding veto power if he must, is likely to prevail on Iraq policy, for Democrats lack the two-thirds majorities they need to overcome his veto.

Nevertheless, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said following Bush’s speech that “the president’s strategy is still failing to deliver the political solution necessary for Iraq’s stability. A change of course in Iraq is long overdue, and Congress will continue to fight for that change in the coming weeks.”

Republicans said that reports of military progress in Iraq have greatly eased pressure on their members to abandon the war. They may even be able to put Democrats on the defensive.

“While political reconciliation at the national level has come too slowly, grassroots reconciliation in provinces like Anbar and other Iraqi towns is encouraging,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. Earlier this year he'd suggested that Republicans might start backing off of their support for the war by September if the surge wasn't working. Now he sees it differently.

“Everyone agrees that more progress on political reconciliation is essential, but pushing for a precipitous withdrawal when the momentum is ours is not just irrational, it is negligent,” said Boehner, sharpening the pro-surge GOP attack line.

Republicans also cite shifting sentiments among Democrats, such as Rep. Brian Baird of Washington upon his return from a recent visit to Baghdad.

“I believe giving it more time is worth the risk,” Baird said Wednesday. “We need to sustain the investment, at least for awhile, in the belief things are getting better.”

Prior to Congress’ August recess, Baird had supported legislation that called for withdrawal of U.S. forces to begin within 120 days. He now says that he wishes the measure had never come up and that he hasn’t so much reversed his position as “adjusted” his thinking.

“We need to keep our force strength where it is until next spring and give the political rhetoric a rest,” he said. “If the Democrats were less interested in finding fault and blaming people for a colossal mistake and if Republicans would stop being super-patriots, it would give a chance for our troops on the ground to operate.”

Meanwhile, a new pro-administration advocacy group said it intends to pressure Congress to back Bush’s Iraq policy by spending $15 million on a month-long radio and television ad campaign in more than 20 states.

“Our mission is to get out the message that surrender is not an option in Iraq – to stiffen the back of Congress to do the right thing and not to switch votes for political reasons,” said Freedom's Watch President Bradley A. Blakeman.

Opponents say the group's a front for the White House. Both Blakeman and Ari Fleisher, another member, are former senior members of the Bush White House staff. Blakeman dismissed the claim.

Bush, meanwhile, waged his own pro-surge salesmanship before a largely supportive crowd of war veterans. Bush insisted that democracy and commerce would flourish some day in Iraq as it has in Japan and Korea after U.S. wars, if only American forces stay.

But a hasty withdrawal from Iraq, Bush predicted, would repeat the results of the U.S. pullout from Vietnam, a premature departure he said 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.’”

“And the question now that comes before us is this: will today’s generation of Americans resist the allure of retreat, and will we do in the Middle East what the veterans in this room did in Asia?” Bush said.

Several analysts faulted Bush’s analogies of Iraq to Japan, Korea and Vietnam, noting that those wars involved nations that weren’t deeply splintered along religious and ethnic lines as is Iraq, among other stark differences of circumstance.

“The speech was an act of desperation to scare the American people into staying the course in Iraq,” said Lawrence Korb, a retired Vietnam Naval aviator and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a center-left think tank. “He’s distorted the facts, painting all of the people in Iraq as being on the same side, which is simply not the case. Iraq is a religious civil war.”

The administration's sell-the-surge campaign appears to be making headway. A Gallup poll in early August showed that 31 percent of Americans said the surge is making the situation better. That’s a nine-point increase from early July. Despite that increase however, 57 percent of Americans still thought it was a mistake to send troops to Iraq at all, according to Gallup’s August poll.

Currently, there are about 162,000 troops in Iraq, the highest number since the 2003 invasion. Surge forces make up about 28,000 of those troops.

Petraeus is expected to ask Congress to give the surge troops more time in Iraq. The military has said it cannot maintain surge levels past April and still give troops one year off between their 15-month deployments, as Pentagon regulations require.

Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the number No. 2 commander in Iraq, said that the U.S. would likely begin withdrawing brigades in April, pulling one unit out a month.

(McClatchy Washington Bureau reporters Warren P. Strobel, Nancy Youssef and Les Blumenthal contributed to this story.)

The Gallup Poll results cited are based on telephone surveys of about 1,000 adults over 18 years old and have a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Related stories from McClatchy DC