White House

Bush's speech on Iraq may be the most important of his presidency

WASHINGTON—President Bush is about to take a gamble that could make or break his presidency and his place in history.

In a speech scheduled for Wednesday night, he'll try to convince a war-weary nation to commit more troops and money to a struggle in Iraq that's already cost more than 3,000 American lives and at least $300 billion.

His nationally televised speech, and the reaction to it, will determine the next step in Iraq, test his relations with the new Democratic-led Congress and set the tone for his final two years in office. Some analysts say it could increase pressure for withdrawal if the solutions Bush offers don't bring quick results.

White House aides acknowledge that the president faces a skeptical audience when he goes before television cameras at 9 p.m..

Nearly four years after Bush led the nation to war, most Americans think he made a big mistake. A Gallup poll conducted last weekend for USA Today and CNN found that only 1 in 4 Americans approve of his handling of Iraq. Only about a third said they'd support his expected call for as many as 20,000 more troops.

Even Bush's allies concede that he may not get another chance to revise a war plan that's failed to meet shifting challenges from Iraqi insurgents, Islamic terrorists and bloody sectarian violence.

"This may not be our last chance, but it's as close to our last chance as anything I can think of," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said.

Bush's toughest challenge may be trying to convince Americans that the war is worth the mounting cost, in both lives and money. In addition to a troop increase, his plan is expected to include an ambitious new jobs program for Iraqis that could cost as much as $1 billion.

As Bush put the final touches on his plan, congressional Democrats looked for ways to block any troop surge. Calling Iraq "George Bush's Vietnam," Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said he would introduce legislation that would require congressional approval for any troop increase.

"We cannot simply speak out against an escalation of troops in Iraq; we must act to prevent it," he said in a speech at the National Press Club. "As with Vietnam, the only rational solution to the crisis is political, not military. Injecting more troops into a civil war is not the answer."

White House spokesman Tony Snow said Bush would try to shore up support for the war by raising hopes for victory and spelling out the consequences of defeat. The White House has sought to frame the Iraq debate as a choice between Bush's plan and abject failure.

"The president will not shape policy according to public opinion, but he does understand that that it's important to bring the public back to this war and restore public confidence," Snow said. "I think what the American people will ask themselves is, do we want to win this war?"

But some who share Bush's view of the dire consequences of failure worry that by raising expectations for progress, Bush runs the risk of a backlash if his new approach fails to get positive results soon.

"After a couple of months, people will say, `Well, look, the situation hasn't changed. That demonstrates it's hopeless,'" former national security Brent Scowcroft said on ABC last weekend. "The pressure to get out will increase."

Bush stayed out of public view Tuesday as he promoted his plan in private talks with members of Congress and foreign leaders. Meeting participants said Bush stressed his goal of turning security responsibility over to Iraqis. He also told visitors that the plan would include new efforts by Iraqi leaders to disarm sectarian militias and restore order in Baghdad.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., said administration officials indicated that the Iraqi commitment for Baghdad would include about 10,000 more Iraqi troops and as many as 18,000 additional police. He said the officials suggested they'd know by February whether the plan would be a success.

"This is being presented as an Iraqi plan," Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said after meeting with Bush and other top administration officials. "They will be taking the lead in Baghdad. They want to show that the Iraqi government can actually function."

Smith said he remained "very skeptical" that the plan would succeed.

Bush also sketched out his ideas in phone calls to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

Senate Democratic leaders said they would introduce a non-binding resolution that would test Senate support for Bush's plan. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said a vote against the plan, even if only symbolic, could force the president to change course.

Some Republicans said they were prepared to back Bush, but suggested that their enthusiasm would depend on the details of the plan and his speech. "As important as what he says is how he says it," said Sen. Trent Lott, the Senate's No. 2 Republican.

Some Iraqi officials were also skeptical about Bush's plans.

Baha Araji, a member of the parliamentary bloc loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said he believes neither the Iraqi nor American military can stop Iraq's eroding security. He called for a political solution. But when asked how to achieve that goal, he shrugged his shoulders.

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(Nancy A. Youssef in Baghdad and Kevin Diaz, Les Blumenthal, Dave Montgomery and Renee Schoof in Washington contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): USIRAQ

Iraq

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