Bush's verbal tightrope: success, not 'victory'

The US public may hear Bush's speech as an 'end of war' declaration, but the president must choose his words carefully.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

By declaring that major combat operations in Iraq have ended, President Bush has put an exclamation point on what is seen by the public as a successful war.

But the Bush administration is choosing its words carefully. For legal and political reasons, the US is not declaring victory or saying "the war is over." In fact, the days of declared wars that end with clear definition, such as World Wars I and II, have been waning.

In Iraq, the regime simply vanished. Ditto in Afghanistan. In Vietnam, there was no US victory to declare. Technically, the Korean War has never ended.

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"So many of the wars since the cold war - and even the cold war itself - just kind of dissipated," says Richard Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina.

Bush's speech is a reminder to Americans that security and terrorism remain top administration concerns.

"It's a de facto declaration of victory for political purposes," says Steven Ratner, an expert on international law at the University of Texas Law School in Austin. Bush is saying that the US has "accomplished its goal, that the troops will be coming home, and that the governance of Iraq moves to a new phase."

At the same time, Professor Ratner adds, Bush and Co. are trying to avoid tying their hands legally. If Bush had declared the war fully over, he could face demands to release Iraqi prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. Though the US has let some prisoners go, it wants to hold others for questioning.

A full declaration of victory would also mean that Saddam Hussein is no longer fair game as a military target. And as a matter of public relations, the US is safer with a limited declaration: Bush is not claiming that the US has achieved all its goals, such as capturing Mr. Hussein, locating weapons of mass destruction, and setting up an interim government.

Reality check

Still, the American public may hear Bush's declaration as a statement of victory and full end to war - and then wonder about the deadly incidents that are likely to continue. This week, US troops shot at a crowd of civilian protesters, killing 13, after the Americans were allegedly fired upon.

Another risk for Bush is that he will now likely face growing charges that the US and its allies are an "occupying force" in Iraq, as the International Committee of the Red Cross charges. According to the Hague Convention, a territory is "occupied" when it is under the rule of a hostile army. The US calls the coalition a "liberating force."

For Bush, though, tying a bow on the Iraq operation allows him to move on, as he looks toward his reelection campaign. Today he is scheduled to deliver a speech in Santa Clara, Calif., that will reportedly move away from war themes.

Looking back through history, the convention of declaring a formal end to war has become less common. In the war in Afghanistan, Bush never declared an end to major hostilities. The war simply faded from public attention, though its challenges remain strong. The US and its allies never captured Osama bin Laden, and the country is sliding toward warlordism and a renewed Al Qaeda presence.

The first President Bush also never declared an end to the Persian Gulf war, though he did announce on Feb. 27, 1991, that Kuwait had been liberated and that US military operations would cease.

Herbert Parmet, a biographer of the senior Bush, says Bush had mixed feelings about the end of that war and didn't want to celebrate. "There were many misgivings," says Mr. Parmet. "In his diary he wrote, it won't be a Battleship Missouri type of surrender," referring to the end of World War II. "This is the same guy who didn't want to make any kind of proclamation about the collapse of the Berlin Wall," which happened on his watch, Parmet says. "He was guarded about those kinds of things."

Parmet suggests that it is the senior Bush's own military service in World War II that shaped his approach to war and victory, while the junior Bush, who never faced active duty, may feel less ambivalence about the subject.

Sense of closure

For US forces, Bush's declaration of an end to combat is a welcome gesture, says Jack Pitney, a political analyst at Claremont McKenna College in California. "It's a cliché, but it gives the people in uniform a sense of closure."

In addition to making history by being the first US president to address the nation from the deck of a moving aircraft carrier, Bush was to spend last night on the ship.

Democrats say one can't overplay the political dimension of Bush's USS Lincoln speech. Though Bush hasn't declared yet that he's running for reelection - and is expected never to do so, just as President Clinton never formally announced his reelection bid - with each passing day, his actions will be seen more and more through the lens of how they'll play with voters.

"The president is served well politically when the subject is foreign policy and war, and anything he can do to keep that focus is to his benefit," says Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist. "Nobody needs to be told that hostilities are over, but it's good politics. This whole setting is like an ad-maker's dream come true."

So don't be surprised, he says, if the scene of Bush on the aircraft carrier, declaring the end of major combat in Iraq, becomes a staple of Bush campaign ads in 2004.

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