With new polls showing public support for the war in Iraq sagging and his political future at risk, President George W. Bush gave a speech Monday evening designed to reassure both Iraqis and Americans that he has a plan to bring the conflict to a successful resolution.
"We will persevere, and defeat this enemy, and hold this hard-won ground for the realm of liberty" the president told a friendly audience of military officers at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It was the first of what the White House says will be a series of speeches before the US is scheduled to turn over sovereignty to an Iraqi government on June 30.
The 33-minute talk, delivered in a restrained and deliberate fashion, contained little that was new except that the president announced plans to build a new maximum security prison to replace the Abu Ghraib prison where US soldiers and contractors allegedly mistreated Iraqis.
The Abu Ghraib facility, notorious during the reign of Saddam Hussein, has "become a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values," Mr. Bush said. He announced that after the new prison is built, the US would seek Iraqi permission to tear down Abu Ghraib.
The President spoke on the same day the United States and Britain presented a new UN resolution that would transfer "governing authority" in Iraq to a sovereign international government by June 30 and authorize a multinational force to maintain peace with Iraqi consent. The resolution is a bid to win greater international backing for the US government's post-occupation plans in Iraq.
In his remarks the president admitted no mistakes in his administration's conduct of the war. But he did warn that "difficult days ahead and the way forward may sometimes appear chaotic"" He noted that "there is likely to be more violence before the transfer of sovereignty and after the transfer of sovereignty." And he repeated his oft-stated promise that if commanders on the ground say more troops are needed, "I will send them."
Early reaction to the speech fell along partisan lines. Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Majority Whip, said, "There is a plan in place. I hope more people will listen to it. It will work."
Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said, "I am extremely disappointed," by the speech. I didn't have a single question answered."
In prime-time remarks carried by cable news outlets but not by broadcast networks, the president set forth a five-step plan he said would "help Iraq achieve democracy and freedom. We will hand over authority to a sovereign Iraqi government; help establish security; continue rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure; encourage more international support; and move toward a national election that will bring forward new leaders empowered by the Iraqi people."
Bush has a great deal riding on the success of that plan, as a new Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday night made clear.
The Post poll, conducted May 20-23, found public approval of the president's handling of the conflict in Iraq had declined to 40 percent, the lowest since he launched the conflict in March 2003. While a majority of Americans think US forces should remain in Iraq, the percentage favoring withdrawal rose 7 percent in the past month to 40 percent.
The new poll found the president's overall approval rating declined to 47 percent, the lowest level since he took office. Still, the Post found the president running even with Democratic contender John Kerry when voters were asked how they would vote if the election were held today. Some 46 percent of registered voters said Kerry, 46 percent favored Bush, and 4 percent preferred Ralph Nader.
The Post and ABC contacted 1,005 randomly selected adults. The margin of sampling error for overall results is plus or minus three percentage points.
The president spoke at a venue where a supportive reaction was virtually guaranteed. The US Army War College trains the next generation of Army leaders and has a current student body of 320 officers. The current class will graduate in June. The president mingled with the audience briefly after the speech and then left the hall on the way to Marine One, the green and white helicopter that would take him back to the White House.
Material from the Associated Press was used in preparing this report.