As the nation fights wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and seeks to keep the American homeland safe, another sort of conflict is heating up: a war of rhetoric.
Thursday, President Bush launched a series of speeches aimed at building support for efforts to combat terrorism and for the Iraq war. His address before the American Legion in Salt Lake City followed tough speeches this week by other top administration officials that characterized Iraq war opponents as "defeatists" and "appeasers," likening the threat of Islamic fundamentalist-driven terrorism to "fascism."
With the death toll mounting in Iraq, Mr. Bush has moved away from trying to portray a sense of progress there to warning of the consequences of pulling out. On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks – and a little more than two months before crucial congressional elections – Bush appears intent on framing all the wars as part of the larger war on terrorism.
"They're playing to [an issue] that's one of the few things they've got going for them," says John Mueller, an expert on war and public opinion at Ohio State University.
Bush and the Republicans made terrorism a winning electoral issue in 2002 and 2004, but it's not clear that strategy will work for them again. A majority of Americans no longer see the Iraq war as part of the larger war on terror, according to a CBS-New York Times poll released last week.
In his speech Thursday, the president pushed his message on terrorism hard. He laid out differences between the Sunni Muslims of Al Qaeda and the Shiite Muslims adhering to groups like Hizbullah, noting the state sponsorship of Syria and Iran. "Still others are homegrown terrorists, fanatics who live quietly in free societies. They dream to destroy," he continued.
Despite their differences, "these groups form the outlines of a single movement: the worldwide network of radicals that use terror to kill those who stand in the way of their totalitarian ideology," the president said.
On Wednesday, Bush maintained that his series of speeches, which will culminate in an address to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 19, are not political. But Democrats did not buy that argument, and have come out with their own rhetorical guns blazing, denying accusations that they are "appeasers" and rejecting GOP inferences that they would vote to cut off funding to the troops when Congress comes back. The Democrats' stated plan is to leave no charge unanswered, with party leaders at the ready to respond.
Furthering the GOP's challenge, it remains an open question whether many Americans who now oppose the administration's foreign policy are listening to the arguments and are willing to change their minds. History has shown that once public opinion turns sour on a war, such as Vietnam, it is impossible to win it back.
"If he really wants to improve public support for the war, speeches alone won't do it," says Christopher Gelpi, a political scientist at Duke University who is studying this issue. "He has to improve conditions on the ground in Iraq."
Given the steepness of that task, he adds, perhaps the best Bush can hope for from his speeches – and from his surrogates' suggestions that Democrats would weaken the nation's defenses – is to keep the Republican base from getting discouraged in November and failing to vote.
"A key point in getting people to vote Republican is getting them to believe that fighting this war is the right thing to do – not so much focusing on success, but focusing on what's the reason for the mission," says Mr. Gelpi. "Shifting his rhetoric to that may help to support Republican candidates. Certainly, he wants to avoid losing control of one of the houses of Congress this fall."
Probably the most politically pungent speech of the week came from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who spoke of "moral and intellectual confusion" over the Iraq war and the larger war on terror as he criticized Bush's critics and the news media.
On Tuesday, Vice President Cheney spoke at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, where Bush came on 9/11, right after the attacks. He sounded a familiar theme: "We have only two options in Iraq – victory or defeat."