Bush acts to rally public on Iraq war

In statements from the White House, he says 'we're winning,' but also urges patience and admits mistakes.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In an attempt to muscle American opinion on the Iraq war back to his side - and defend his wartime powers - President Bush has just completed the most intense public-relations blitz of his presidency.

Almost with the feel of the final days of an election campaign, Mr. Bush has sought to make clear that he intends to keep American troops in Iraq until "victory has been achieved"; that he has a strategy for success; and, with a hint of humility, that he acknowledges mistakes and hears his critics.

In a press conference Monday, the president reserved his sharpest comments for critics of a recently revealed secret domestic eavesdropping program and for senators who are blocking extension of the antiterror USA Patriot Act.

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"I can fully understand why members of Congress are expressing concerns about civil liberties. I know that. And I share the same concerns," Bush said. "I want to make sure the American people understand, however, that we have an obligation to protect you, and we're doing that and at the [same] time protecting your civil liberties."

He invoked his constitutional authority as president and commander in chief in defending the eavesdropping program that he authorized in the months after 9/11. The program, run out of the National Security Agency (NSA) and bypassing the usual requirement for judicial approval for wiretapping, targets phone calls placed between the United States and foreign countries.

The president also blamed partisan politics for the Senate filibuster that has blocked reauthorization of the Patriot Act, portions of which are due to expire at the end of the year. Without naming names, he blamed senators from New York, California, and Nevada for blocking renewal of the act. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid is from Nevada and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) is from New York.

Monday's press conference - a rare appearance before Washington media in the ornate East Room of the White House - capped a 19-day spree of high-profile presidential events, seven in all.

Beginning Nov. 30, Bush delivered four speeches, before foreign-affairs and defense-related audiences, in the run-up to the Dec. 15 Iraqi parliamentary elections. He laid out what he called his strategy for victory in Iraq, and then provided more detail than usual on the efforts toward military, economic, and political progress in that country.

After a successful day of voting in Iraq and then the bombshell revelation in The New York Times last Friday that Bush had authorized warrantless eavesdropping by the NSA, the president opted to deliver his Saturday radio address live from the Roosevelt Room, before television cameras.

There, he defended the wiretapping program and touted the Iraqi elections. And on Sunday night, he delivered a prime-time televised address to the nation, largely summarizing his four earlier speeches on Iraq. It was his first Oval Office speech since announcing the start of the Iraq war in March 2003.

From the start, the Iraq war has been a high-stakes venture. Now, with public opinion seeming to have shifted firmly against the decision to go in, Bush has ratcheted up the stakes yet again, making clear that his legacy as president rests on whether the war produces a successful outcome. His pitch has been highly personal, delivered with lots of first-person references that boil down to one phrase: "trust me."

Now, the public-relations battle could become even more difficult. More benchmarks remain to be fulfilled in Iraq - including the formation of a new government, following last Thursday's election results, and amending the Constitution - there are no firm dates around which to hang expectations or hail progress. In his presentations, Bush had hinted that US troop levels could be drawn down as progress is made, but he has resisted calls to issue a timetable.

Ultimately, political analysts say, public relations can go only so far in turning around public opposition to the Iraq war; events will do the talking.

"From now on, it's success on the ground, particularly the ability to draw down American troops," says John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. "To the extent that happens, the president's position may improve. To the extent that it doesn't happen, his position certainly won't get any better and it might actually get worse."

A subsidiary factor weighing heavily on the president is the dramatic decline this year in the public's view of his credibility. In July, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found the percentage of Americans who view Bush as "honest and straightforward" had fallen to 41 percent, down from 50 percent in January.

Bush's recent speeches on Iraq have shown more candor in discussing mistakes - and subsequent course corrections - than before. Bush has also made clear lately that he takes responsibility for the decision to go to war, even though the intelligence on the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq proved false.

But even as he has gone on the offensive to take his message straight to the American people, the latest revelation about wiretapping on US soil by one of the foreign intelligence agencies of the US, the NSA, has put him on the defensive. At first, the White House refused to confirm the existence of the secret program, citing national security concerns, then abruptly changed course on Saturday, when Bush acknowledged its existence.

By admitting to the plan, he could then lay out his rationale, defend the need to keep authorizing the program, and explain the ways in which he believes Congress is providing an adequate check on presidential power, even though the wiretaps are not receiving judicial approval.

"This program is carefully reviewed approximately every 45 days to ensure it is being used properly," Bush said at the press conference. "Leaders in the United States Congress have been briefed more than a dozen times on this program. And it has been effective in disrupting the enemy while safeguarding our civil liberties. This program has targeted those with known links to Al Qaeda."

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