To Bush, Iraq's path to democracy akin to America's
In a speech Monday, he reminded a skeptical public of Founding Fathers' infighting.
WASHINGTON — Iraq's struggles to forge a democratic future are comparable to the troubles the United States had while establishing its own constitutional government. And by helping the Iraqis overcome their problems, America serves its own security interests by spreading freedom in a troubled area of the world.
Those are key comparisons President Bush made Monday during the third in a series of speeches leading up to Iraq's elections on Thursday. This address focused on Iraq's nascent political process itself - a process that has stumbled and produced internal division, yet also provided the inspiring sight of millions of Iraqis defying danger to vote in preliminary elections earlier this year.
The vote on Thursday won't be perfect, and is far from the end of the electoral process. But "millions of Iraqis will put their lives on the line this Thursday in the name of freedom and democracy," the president said in an address to the World Affairs Council in Philadelphia.
The speech was Mr. Bush's latest attempt to try to win more support for his Iraq policies from an American public increasingly skeptical of his handling of the war and the prospects for ultimate victory in Iraq.
Since launching the series of Iraq talks, Bush has seen an upturn in his job-approval rating in some polls, though it remains low by historical standards.
In speaking of the Iraqi democratic process from a Philadelphia stage, Bush aimed to invoke the image of America's own Founding Fathers in support of Iraq's new political leaders. As Bush said, the United States did not produce a constitution that could win ratification until years after the American Revolution.
He also noted that the document itself did not solve all the new nation's political problems. Tensions between the industrial North and the agrarian South, aggravated by the stain of slavery, erupted into the Civil War before the Constitution was 100 years old.
But it was the image of querulous Founding Fathers that Bush focused on - not the horrendous fighting that erupted in 1861.
"Our Founders faced many difficult challenges. They learned from their mistakes and adjusted their approach," Bush said.
Whether Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Muslims can play the parts of America's northerners and southerners remains to be seen. Bush took great care to emphasize that Sunni participation in the Iraqi political process is growing, with Sunni coalitions running in Thursday's election and millions of ordinary Sunnis seeing that their boycott of last January's vote may have been counterproductive.
"As more Sunnis join the political process, they will protect the interests of their communities," said Bush.
But many Sunnis remain deeply suspicious of a government dominated by Shiites and fear that it intends to rule by fear and guns as well as by the ballot. The recent discovery of at least two prisons filled with Sunnis, some of whom are reported to have been tortured, has only heightened this suspicion.
Establishing a rule of law and a habit of reconciliation is one of the major challenges facing Iraq, Bush acknowledged.
After his speech Monday, Bush took questions from the audience - something he didn't do in the first two addresses in this Iraq series. Among other things, Bush said that more than 30,000 Iraqis may have died since the beginning of the Iraqi conflict, as well as about 2,140 American troops.
Bush also said that of about 90 military bases the US established in Iraq, 40 have been turned over to the Iraqis. But in some ways the unstable security situation remains unchanged, with Bush himself noting that "millions of Iraqis will put their lives on the line this Thursday" when they set out to vote.
Critics of the continued US presence in Iraq complained that Bush ignored what they say is obvious: The large numbers of US troops in Iraq feed the insurgency, by providing targets and and a grievance. A timetable for troop withdrawal would actually make Iraqis safer, say some Democrats.